Chefs in white coats peered over evaluation papers at artisan bread, glazed cakes called entremets, wedding cakes and towering sugar showpieces in a hushed conference room at Wake Tech Community College on Tuesday.
A handful of professional chefs and more than 70 culinary students from Wake Tech, Guilford College, and the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham slaved for weeks to perfect their creations for judges eyes during the Wake Tech and American Culinary Federation (ACF) N.C. chapter Culinary Salon.
The event resulted in a grade for students enrolled in the 2-year culinary program at Wake Tech. It also provides them the chance to receive a gold medal from ACF, one of the United States cooking authorities.
Nothing about the elegant garnishes or smooth fondant spoke to the agony of learning curves, accidents and family emergencies that students endured to bring their best before the ACF certified judges.
Stuff happens, and they still come in and finish, said Wake Tech baking instructor Caralyn House. Im so proud of them. They exceed my expectations.
One student, House said, battled a hand injury as she finished her sugar showpiece. The student was driving to class when a deer jumped in front of her car.
Broke her finger, bruising, the whole bit, and shes been trying to finish, House said.
The students had three weeks of class time to complete their work. Those who took time outside of class to practice, House said, performed the best. She gestured to a display of beautifully formed rolls, baguettes and braided loaves.
Shes a mother of seven, he said. And she has been practicing and remaking her bread over and over to get them right.
Professional entries also took tenacity.
Pin-straight strands of white frosting encircled chef Karen Grays one-layer cake in delicate lace scallops. The single band took the Wake Tech instructor nine hours to make. Gum paste flowers resting on top looked fresh-cut from a garden and took several days to make.
You have to do it in stages, and then the stages have to dry, Gray said.
To the untrained eye, a beautiful culinary display might hide dozens of mistakes. But a chef would pick out dingy colors, overly thick fondant flowers, or uneven glaze.
Judges look for the skillful use of multiple techniques, creativity and presentation. One sugar showpiece featuring a window, embedded snowflakes, blue mittens and a red cup of cocoa all made of a synthetic sugar called isomalt captured the judges with its whimsey.
Each category of creation had its own benchmarks and standards that student must meet.
Entremets need a glaze and garnish, and must have at least four layers, ranging from sponge or mousse to chocolate or crunch. The artisan bread displays had to include at least one baguette and one braided dough, among other types.
The categories have different criteria, too. For the the sugar showpieces, for instance, chef John Hui from California said he looks at the quality of the pulled, poured or blown sugar.
How clean it is, how shiny it is, if its cast well enough, Hui said.
The wedding cake category calls for originality, a variety of frosting techniques, and proper placement of flowers.
The judges are looking for you to show as much talent as you have, House said.
One talented baker is Suzanne Downs, who earned a gold medal on her entremet for the finest glaze on display. She works like an engineer, House said, and does her work with precision. Her orange zest genoise had layers of hazelnut praline, orange gelee and milk chocolate hazelnut mousse. The glaze was a shiny dark chocolate.
House said Downs is a low-drama student, and plans to return to the college and teach after graduating the culinary program.
Shes a success, he said.