James Zeisler, executive chef at Owens Food Court, has won the National Association of College & University Food Services' (NACUFS) 2022 Mid-Atlantic Conference Culinary Challenge. The annual competition recognizes exceptional culinary expertise within collegiate dining and rewards a combination of organization, talent, technique, taste, and style.

Zeisler’s score also earned him a silver medal from the American Culinary Federation (ACF), whose standards were used in judging the challenge.

Zeisler competed against three other collegiate chefs from the region in Norfolk, Virginia, in March. The timed competition required the chefs to prepare a creative entree featuring one mandatory ingredient — a whole turkey — in a nutritionally balanced plate. Zeisler advances to the association's National Conference in Spokane, Washington, in July to compete before a live audience against winners from the other five regions.

Zeisler said he enjoyed the chance to make a fresh play on a traditional American meal. “My turkey was brined, seasoned with sage and thyme, wrapped in prosciutto, and stuffed with arugula and cotija, a Mexican cheese. I kept the traditional sweet potato puree but added a mushroom and Brussels saute, and instead of cranberries for tart contrast, I went with pomegranate foam.”

Gabe Petry, assistant director for Owens Food Court, said Zeisler’s participation is part of Dining Services’ broader involvement in the collegiate food services community and shows its commitment to learning. “When we’re not sending contenders to the Culinary Challenge, we often share and are recognized for our initiatives in programming, sustainability, or management. Our central hiring team has shared their practices at previous conferences, for example, to help our peers learn new approaches to conduct effective operations.”

“Participating in competitions with respected organizations like NACUFS and ACF is a way for our chefs to demonstrate and advance their professional development,” said Petry. 

Training for the event’s strict format was an opportunity for Zeisler to hone the efficiency that Dining Services uses to serve thousands of students each week. Zeisler said, “Part of my process was practicing with a stopwatch to make the most of my one-hour window. I've walked through making this dish at least 15 times.” 

Zeisler said he will continue to take advantage of the competition’s orientation toward growth. “As a member with some certifications through ACF, I knew a bit about their judging criteria. Certifications are a way to show culinary ability, and these competitions allow you to demonstrate mastery.”

“The judges gave us blunt critique based on ACF standards. My pomegranate foam had good textural contrast with the other components of my dish but didn’t carry the flavor intensity the judges were looking for. So for the national competition, I'm going to turn that foam into a coulis, chutney, or gastrique — something more classic and flavorful.” 

Each chef’s dish is rated for the NACUFS competition using a score that could also earn them an ACF medal, so the challenges are like two competitions in one, said Zeisler. “Of this year’s regional winners, I only saw one rated gold, with everyone else winning silver. My goal for nationals is to win the competition, but I really want an ACF gold."

Petry said that some additional hurdles go along with getting to the national level. “For the regional competition, Chef James drove to Norfolk in a refrigerated truck with all the ingredients. If you have to brine a turkey for three days before the competition, how do take that to Spokane with you?”

Such challenges, like Zeisler’s dedication, are all part of Dining Services’ continuous pursuit of excellence in serving students, said Petry. “As part of Virginia Tech, when we get into something, we're in it to win it.”

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