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Culinary students vie for sweet victory at chocolate fest

Updated: 
May 3, 2014 - 10:25am

The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii’s Grand Ballroom was a sweet spot Friday. The smell of warm, melted chocolate wafted and circulated around as a dozen community college students from Hawaii Island and Maui competed to see who could concoct the best plated dessert in four hours.

This culinary student competition was part of the annual Big Island Chocolate Festival, one of Forbes’ top five must-visit spring food festivals. Presented by the Kona Cacao Association Inc., the three-day festival promotes the island’s cacao industry, as well as gives attendees an opportunity to savor chocolate through hands-on seminars, demonstrations, tours and a decadent gala. The festival also benefits the Equip the Kitchens campaign for the future Hawaii Community College — Palamanui and the Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Kealakekua, said Farsheed Bonakdar, the association’s president.

The festival raised $5,000 each for these schools in 2013, and Bonakdar hopes to generate at least the same amount this year.

The culinary student competition was added for last year’s festival. Bonakdar worked with Maui Community College instructor and chef Teresa Shurilla to create an event that would allow participants to demonstrate their creative abilities, culinary techniques and management skills in a fun and challenging way. The competition gives students a chance to see what their peers at other schools are doing, build their confidence in the kitchen and meet chocolatiers and high-caliber chefs who serve as judges.

The anchor ingredient is, of course, chocolate. This tricky, delicate substance can be difficult to manage, sensitive to heat and cold, and tends to melt. Though its one of the most beguiling foods, it can also be used in foods ranging from sweet and savory to surprising. The options are as limitless as one’s imagination, several contestants and their chef instructors said.

For their entry, Sarah Ruesing, Justina Frias and Jairlynn Kinoshita were inspired by matcha, the Japanese green tea powder. This team of second-year culinary students from the Hawaii Community College — Hilo knew the bitterness of the matcha would play wonderfully with the sweetness of chocolate. From there, they experimented and created “Chocolate in a Japanese Spring Garden” — a dessert consisting of a moist chocolate cake paired with dark chocolate panna cotta, green tea pudding, black sesame and white chocolate ice cream on feuilletine “sand,” poached plum ribbons with plum essence caviar, feuilletine chips, and dark chocolate truffles with imperial grade matcha “dust.”

Ruesing said she was extremely proud of how her team performed. Just two weeks ago, they learned about spherification — a modern molecular gastronomy technique of shaping liquid into tiny spheres resembling caviar — and feuilletine, which are essentially crispy wafer-flakes that add a textural element to desserts. They pushed themselves to create unexpected and unusual combinations that might sound strange, but are amazingly delicious.

Ruesing thanked her instructors for their endless support, encouragement and knowledge. She said they never killed or criticized their ideas, but helped improve and materialize them.

From the beginning of Friday’s competition, Gary Cyr, Kanani Sadumiano and Tiani Aribal faced hurdles. This team of second-year culinary students from the University of Hawaii at UH Center, West Hawaii in Kealakekua discovered their eggs were frozen and they had no oven access. The most challenging part, Aribal said, was “the last hour crunch” and making sure everything was perfect.

Their entry included quaint, white chocolate cups filled with chocolate coffee mousse and whipped cream, which rested on a bisoff cookie; raspberry and banana macaroons with butter cream filling; and a chocolate chiffon cake with raspberry filling and chocolate ganache.

The team participated because of its members’ love for pastry. Aribal said she recently got a job as a baker at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai while Sadumiano is a baker at the Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay and Cyr has been cooking his whole life and decided to pursue a culinary career after retiring from being a Navy construction mechanic.

Friday’s judges were Food Network celebrity Jacques “Mr. Chocolate” Torres, Vincent Bourdin of Valrhona Chocolates Asia-Pacific, Donald Wressell of Guittard, and Daniel Sampson of The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii. Using iPads and a Web-based application, they assessed and photographed the creations. The results were instant. This was the first time this technology was used for a competition, Shurilla said.

The technology is the same used for UH Community Colleges’ ongoing Instructional Assessment and ePortfolio Project, which started three years ago with the culinary programs on Maui. Funded through a Carl D. Perkins Vocational &Technical Grant, the project has established a formal assessment strategy to monitor student achievement, including the completion and attainment of skills and standard outcomes, in real time. Besides improving assessment activities, the technology has enhanced instruction and student learning, as well as helped student retention rates, said Mark Cook, an educational specialist and the project’s program coordinator for the UH Community Colleges System Office in Honolulu. This technology will be launched at community colleges on the Big Island next spring, he added.

The winners of the student culinary competition will be revealed at tonight’s gala, which culminates the festival. The event, slated from 6 to 10 p.m., features gourmet creations by talented chefs, chocolatiers, confectioners and beverage purveyors. Also on tap are chocolate sculptures, chocolate body painting, entertainment and a silent auction. Tickets are available at the door for $100 apiece.

For more information about the festival, call 324-6100 or visit bigislandchocolatefestival.com.