Thirty-six Yale students faced a daunting challenge Thursday evening in Commons — in one hour, they were asked to turn fish and beans into a culinary delicacy that could impress a New York Times food critic.
The event was the fifth annual Final Cut competition, a cooking showdown organized by the Yale College Council and Yale Dining that mimics the popular “Iron Chef” television program. A team of three students from each residential college planned and prepared an appetizer and entrée for four judges — New York Times food writer Stephanie Lyness, Yale College Dean Mary Miller, Executive Director of Yale Dining Rafi Taherian and Director of Culinary Excellence Ron DeSantis.
Pierson College students Zachary Bell ’14, Natalie Drucker ’14 and Kuang He ’14, who took home the first-place prize of $1,000, said they focused on having fun during the competition and did not anticipate their win.
“It really wasn’t expected, because we kept things simple and knew our limitations,” Bell said. “It probably helped that we stuck to one style, South American, and fried a lot of stuff.”
DeSantis said first, second and third place were awarded to the dishes that showed innovative elements, such as creative textures and flavors. Each group was assigned one of four types of beans — black, pinto, kidney or garbanzo — as well as one of four types of fish — cod, haddock, pollack or salmon — to incorporate into their dishes. After tasting 24 items, the judges considered which appetizers and entrées were memorable and which ones had “a special pop,” such as a surprise herb or a splash of vinegar, he said.
The Pierson team prepared an appetizer of fried cheese taquitos with bean salsa and a fish bowl for the main course, and Miller said the group’s side dish of crisp, marinated onions stood out.
“It blew all the other flavors off the plate,” she said.
The second- and third-place awards went to Davenport College and Saybrook College, respectively.
Saybrook team member Shivani Bhatt ’13 said the group encountered an obstacle when plating their dishes in the last five minutes, a task that “got pretty hectic.” She added that she thinks the group succeeded because they enjoyed cooking together and “didn’t take the competition aspect too seriously.”
Berkeley College team members, who were all seniors, said they decided to participate “on a whim” and were determined to keep their station casual — even naming their group “Team Twerkitchen.”
Three prizes were also awarded to the best cheering sections, with Morse College winning first place, Silliman College in second and Saybrook College in third.
Eve Roth ’16 said she attended the event because she wanted to see a victory for Morse in the competition.
“I’m here because Morse always wins — it’s just about Morse always winning,” Roth said.
Those who did not win still walked away with free food from over 15 vendors that set up tables in Commons, including Bush’s Baked Beans and Alaska Seafood — the two main sponsors of Final Cut — as well as Michele’s Family Bakery, which gave away free cake, scones, cookies and whole loaves of bread. Bettina Cheung ’16 called the free loaves “the best part” of the evening.
Maneesh Vij ’15 said he thinks the event gets “bigger and better” each year and that he enjoyed the variety of food options.
In addition to their first-place prize of $1,000 and a Final Cut trophy to display in their dining hall for one year, the Pierson College team also won the honor of having their dishes included in the Yale Dining menu for next year.