Raleigh, N.C.: Jennifer Leamons, Executive Catering Chef for UNC Charlotte, earned a Silver Medal in a culinary challenge held March 13, 2015 at the Southern Regional Conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS). She was selected to compete based upon an original recipe submission featuring a main protein selected by NACUFS executive leadership, which this year, was buffalo flank steak. Thirteen chefs presented recipes from the Southern region and among those, six were chosen; Leamons was the only representative from the UNC System and the only woman.
Challenge participants worked under the pressure of a time limit to display their best culinary techniques as they prepared qualifying recipes in front of three American Culinary Federation approved judges, two of which are Master Chef Certified. The competitors had 60 minutes to prepare two classical cuts of the meat, along with sides and sauces to create a balanced plate.
Leamons called her dish, “Past, Present & Future,” and it ambitiously featured three elements on one plate. “I wanted lots of color,” she says, “to showcase the varieties in which the flank steak could be prepared. I served it raw, grilled, seared and smoked.”
For the ‘Past’ portion of the dish, she explains, “I made a traditional buffalo flank steak tartare (popular origin 19th Century) with shallots, garlic, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire Sauce, salt and pepper; the meat is raw and finely diced, topped with a poached egg and a toasted Pumpernickel toast point.”
‘Present’ reflected current molecular gastronomy trends. “I used a smoke gun to smoke a dry rubbed piece of flank steak, served it over purple mashed kale potatoes and made a tomato relish for the sauce. I garnished it with fried red onions and Merlot wine pearls.” Those pearls were created using agar-agar, a dried seaweed derivative, to create a gel that when dropped in cold oil forms little edible balls. “They melt in your mouth,” says Leamons, “releasing the flavor of the Merlot wine and beef stock.”
For the ‘Future’ portion of her dish, Leamons honored a dietary trend that she believes will the norm in the future: animal protein served in quantities proportionately smaller to vegetables. “It was a salad of local micro greens, pea shoots, popcorn shoots and arugula, topped with a small portion of grilled flank steak and a tarragon white balsamic vinaigrette.
Ana Alvarez, Director of Auxiliary Services at UNC Charlotte, was there for the competition. “It was very exciting to watch,” reports Alvarez, “and her dish was beautiful!”
“We are very proud of Chef Jennifer’s performance at the NACUFS Culinary Competition,” says Bill Bremer, Resident District Manager for Dining Services at UNC Charlotte. “Her drive for culinary excellence is one of the reasons UNC Charlotte’s catering program is second to none.”
“Events like this awaken the passion that we have for this amazing industry,” adds Leamons. “There was nothing better than the moment I finished plating my last dish with 1 minute left on the clock. A huge rush of pride came over me.”
Only the gold medal winner moves on to the National Culinary Challenge in Indianapolis this summer; that will be Chef Juan Evangelista of Rice University. So, for UNC Charlotte, there’s always next year! “As this was Jennifer’s first time in this competition, I am certain she will have a few takeaways from her experience that will help her in competitions moving forward,” said Bremer. “And, it’s always great to get her name and the University’s name out there. When that happens, people from outside our campus see what we and so many of our customers already know: Jen rocks!”
Want to know more about the NACUFS Culinary Challenge?
Here are the rules under which Chef Jennifer competed and will be used in the national competition later this summer.
About Chef Jen
Jennifer Leamons grew up in a small town in Maine. At the age of 12 she knew she wanted to be a chef and enjoyed cooking with her grandmother, who could somehow find a way to put carrots in everything she made.
She received a B.S. degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Her career has included work as chef for a sailing adventure company, catering chef for movies and concerts, chef manager, hospital chef, and chef instructor.
In September, 2014, Leamons was recruited by Chartwells to join the team in Charlotte as the Executive Catering Chef for UNC Charlotte.