After a semester of whipping up gastronomic masterpieces in the dining hall, I knew the time had come. I was ready to test my craft against the people at the top of the industry, the best of the best — the dining hall chefs. I swiped my card and strutted into the kitchen like the Don Juan of culinary creativity I knew I was.
“Where’s Sally at?” I demanded, eager to prove myself against the undisputed wrap-making champion of Saybrook College.
Sally emerged from behind the grill station with her hands on her hips. “Who wants to know?”
“I challenge you to a cook-off,” I exclaimed.
Sally cocked her head back. “You?” she snickered. “Challenging me?”
“You. Me. And the sandwich bar,” I replied, puffing my chest and crossing my arms. “Best wrap wins.”
She snapped her fingers and stuck out her hands. A man appeared immediately bearing two pairs of latex gloves. She chucked a pair at my chest, knocking me back a little. Her eyes got big. “It’s on!” she said.
With that, the kitchen erupted like a scene from “West Side Story” as chefs and students gathered around Sally and me, anxious to see who would draw first blood.
I decided to pay homage to the deli sandwiches I was raised on by making a Reuben. Sally must have anticipated this, because the sauerkraut and Russian dressing mysteriously disappeared as soon as the contest began. While I panicked, Sally was calmly chopping up vegetables from the salad bar.
“Don’t go copying off me, Zach,” she taunted.
“Yeah, no cheating!” her dining hall flunkies cried.
Eager to shut them up, I regrouped and got started on a Mediterranean wrap with fresh flavors that would pair well with the summer weather outside. I was on a roll until I saw Sally topping shreds of Philly steak with ranch dressing and hot sauce. How dare she desecrate the essential ingredient of a cheesesteak?
It was too much for a Philly native to take. The distraction caused me to let my wrap unravel as hummus, spinach, and cucumbers spilled out of the tortilla. I would have thrown in the towel were it not for the help of Nancy, the sandwich station manager.
“It’s not over yet! Now pick your head up and get back in the game,” Nancy yelled as she plunged two toothpicks into my wrap, ensuring it would maintain its shape for the judging.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and turned to see Sally and her posse chuckling to themselves.
“Well, well, well. Look who finally finished his wrap,” Sally sneered.
We walked to the judges’ table and presented our plates. Sally’s aesthetic arrangement of her steak wrap accompanied by ketchup-garnished, kettle-cooked potato chips and an orange peel floweret made a positive impression with the judges.
“This looks straight out of Union League Cafe,” said Joe Aphinyanaphongs ’07, contest judge and scene columnist.
“Yours doesn’t, Zach,” quipped Austin Kilaru ’07, another judge, as I offered my hastily assembled wrap, which shared a plate with some typical sandwich bar items. “The pickle’s so random. I’d understand if this were pastrami on rye, but what’s it doing with turkey and hummus?”
What I lacked in presentation I hoped to make up in taste. As the judges took their first bites of my wrap, I scoured their faces for signs of approval. After what felt like hours of anticipation as I watched them chew, one of the judges muttered an “mmmmmmm.”
“You have a lot of flavors going on,” Aphinyanaphongs continued, “but they all really complement the hummus.” I beamed as he praised how my use of lemon juice brought out the summery crispness of the cucumbers and red peppers. But my joy was short-lived.
“The light flavors are great,” piped Jacob Jou ’06, the toughest of the judges, “but they’re completely overpowered by the dense hummus, of which you used way too much.”
The criticism didn’t end there.
“What’s the deal with the chickpeas and the hummus?” Jou asked. “Isn’t that like potatoes over mashed potatoes?”
“It’s post-modern deconstructionism, you ignoramus,” I cried. But my appeal fell on empty ears as the judges began digging into Sally’s steak wrap.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw the looks of ecstasy on their faces. The contest was over before they swallowed their first bite.
“This is really good,” Kilaru said as he went back for seconds. “I usually wouldn’t eat the dining hall steak, but Sally knows what she’s doing.”
I thought I saw a glimmer of hope when Jou reached for a glass of water.
“It’s really spicy,” he said, taking a sip. He proceeded to drown my optimism by adding, “In a good way!”
By voting time, it was clear whose house I was in.
“Stick to your day job, kid,” Sally said. She handed me her wrap recipe and returned to the kitchen as the entire dining hall chanted her name.
The Loser: My Mediterranean Wrap
1 whole wheat wrap
3 tbsp hummus
3 slices turkey
1/3 cup chickpeas
1 cup chopped vegetables (baby spinach, red pepper, cucumber, black olives, tomato and onion)
Lemon juice, to taste
1. Spread hummus on wrap. Squirt lemon juice over hummus. Top with turkey, chickpeas, and vegetables.
2. Fold in sides in two quick motions so ingredients won’t fall out. If you want to be like me, fold in four slow moves so half your ingredients end up on the floor.
3. Slice in half and enjoy. (After the cookoff, the judges acknowledged the wrap was pretty tasty.)
The Winner and Still Champion: Saybrook Sally’s Steak Wrap
1 garlic herb wrap
1 cup chopped vegetables (tomato, romaine, red pepper, pickle, jalapeno)
1 cup Philly steak (it is available in dining halls once a week)
2 tbsp ranch dressing
1 tbsp Frank’s Hot Sauce
1. Put vegetables and steak on wrap. Drizzle on ranch dressing and hot sauce.
2. Ask Sally how she folded her wrap with a deftness seen only at the Roomba Burrito Cart.
3. Arrange on a plate with ketchup-garnished potato chips and an orange peel floweret. (If you can make one of these with a dining hall knife, you should be writing this column, not me.)