Ernest Lopez (center) rushes a tray of puff pastry to the oven during the fourth annual Young Commis Rotisseur competition at St. Philip's College Culinary Academy. Lopez and three other chefs were given a list of ingredients and two-and-a-half hours to plan and prepare their culinary creations in the event sponsored by the local chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The heat is on at the Young Commis Rotisseur competition

Everything in the kitchens is on. The revolving, giant, double-doored ovens are set to 350 degrees, the stoves are hot, and the conveyor toaster is slowly rotating its wire baskets. Inside the refrigerator four trays await - filled with the 16 mystery ingredients each contestant will receive. It is February 7, and inside the kitchens of the St. Philips College Culinary Academy, four young chefs are waiting to compete in the Chaine de Rotisseurs' Young Commis Rotissuer competition. Similar to TV's Iron Chef competition, each of the young men receive a number of secret ingredients, a par stock list of regular pantry items, and two-and-a-half hours in which to create an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert for a panel of tasting judges. Three young restaurant chefs, nominated by Chaine members, will compete against a student from the Academy - the house favorite.

The first contestant to start is Ernest Lopez, a chef at La Mansión hotel. A short young man with an impervious manner, he shuffles quickly throughout the kitchen, cursing under his breath, and barking orders at the SPC students assigned as gofers. Making soft choo-choo sounds, he immediately starts to work; beginning an orange reduction on the stove.

Fifteen minutes later, Josh Paprock, 24, a chef de partie at the Fig Tree, enters the room. He cooks with a frat-boy swagger, deliberate and methodical. He begins to slowly peel baby beets with a paring knife. Later, he describes his style: "I gotta stay as clean as possible. Organization is number one." In the next room, Jesse Rios, 24, a chef de partie at the Westin Hotel, begins. Like Paprock, he brought a carrying case of knives - but his belong to Jeff W. White, a sous chef at the Westin. Rios has a wiry build, a wispy mustache, and a charmingly shy smile that reveals braces.

It's been 45 minutes, and finally the fourth contestant arrives; John Tamez, 24, a student at SPC. His long hair is tucked into a white hairnet, and his cheeks flush ruddy - they'll remain bright red until long after the competition is over. While the other contestants are serving tiny game hen and sausage appetizers, with catfish and shrimp for the entrée, Tamez is planning stuffed endive leaves for the appetizer, a full hen for the entrée, and - most improbably - a tower of handmade ice cream for dessert. The other young men work in kitchens everyday, but that doesn't bother Tamez, who has worked in restaurants before: "I know I'm just as good as those guys."

In the culture of clatter that is the kitchen, there is movement and noise everywhere: chopping, tossing, baking, frying, the squeaks of assistants' shoes as they run to grab ingredients, the impossibly tall head chef of the kitchen striding through in too-short pants.The pacing is fast and furious, and it's hard to tell who's going to win - it's hard to keep track of who's making what. But the kitchen helpers have their favorite: Tamez, their fellow student. "Who bursts out `making` ice cream at the beginning of the meal?" enthuses Rani Duprey. "It's no competition!"

Jesse Rios, a chef de partie at the Westin Hotel, prepares a gâteau benoit. Rios won the competition, and will advance to the regional event in Houston. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

12:30 p.m. Chef Martin runs through the kitchen, and emphatically tells Lopez: "I gotta have something out in four minutes; I don't care in what order, or you're gonna lose points!" Lopez looks around and begins to plate his dessert, hurriedly placing his delicate puff pastry towers on swirls of vanilla anglaise, spilling his spicy marinated fruit into the tower. In his haste he forgets the brie. "The time for presentation is here," declares Chef Martin. Lopez, not realizing that he still has 30 minutes to plate the rest of his dishes, seems crushed: "Yeah, these are ready. I guess I ran out of time." He begins the customary concession speech: "I'm disappointed, but it's a learning process ...," when someone yells out that he still has 30 minutes. "Whew!" He jumps across the room, spinning when he reaches the stove, and points back to me to shout: "Nevermind!"

Paprock is about ready to bring out his first dish - a tower of wilted argula, sugar snap peas, shittakes, and chipotle-rubbed cornish hens, garnished with a sprinkling of chopped bratwurst sausage. Paprock's skillet explodes into a fireball as he pours white wine over baby carrots that have been frying; with a measured stride, he carries the skillet back to the counter, and arranges the baby carrots skewered on the plate. Each of his plates is identical - four perfect little sculptures. Calmly, he declares, "It's ready," and the students whisk in to take the plates to the judges.

Rios now has 15 minutes to bring out his first plate. His gâteau benoit - rich chocolate cakes with the texture of a melting truffle - wait expectantly on a nearby tray. Carrying nearly a pound of butter with his hands, he walks over to the stove. Flustered, he yells for the first time to his assistant, who wears a nametag that reads "Mr. A. Cerillo." Cerillo brings him the grapefruit for the grapefruit butter sauce that will grace his entrée of pan-seared catfish fillets and grilled shrimp.

"Got anything to send out yet?" bellows Chef Martin, as he swings through the kitchen, clipboard in hand. "Sir, just a second," answers Rios. He begins to plate his appetizer: small slices of crispy bratwurst sausage, topped with roasted parsnips, baby gold beets, and an adobo-marinated game hen, under the watchful gaze of the kitchen. He finishes off the tower with a delicate flourish of brie, arugula, and julienned carrot salad, lightly tossed in balsamic vinegar. The assistants reach in to take the plates - but the plodding Cerillo fumbles! Turning the dish to its side, he lets the tower fall - and clumsily tries to rebuild it. The once-crisp argula salad is sodden, but the plate goes out anyway, through the swinging kitchen door, out to the expectant judges.



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Tamez, meanwhile, begins to tie the stuffed endive leaves together with chives; first one, then the other, breaks. Under the pressure of time, his generous fingers fumble with the tiny packages. The appetizer goes out - whew! - and he begins to arrange his main course. Unlike the other contestants' minimal plates, Tamez's dish is hearty: mounds of vegetables, brie and chipotle mashed potatoes, and a whole cornish hen with sausage and bacon stuffed under the skin. Remembering that he forgot to add the pumpkin seeds to the appetizer, he hurriedly sprinkles them over the potatoes. His dessert - his grand statement - is a vanilla and Grand Marnier ice cream tower, replete with fried pineapple rings and grapefruit sections. The kitchen is furiously hot, and by the time he reaches the fourth plate, his ice cream is melting all over the place. "Ah SHIT!" bellows Tamez. The other contestants are done - but he's forgotten his pomegranates. Quickly, he makes a sauce, and then sprinkles it over the dish - and the plate is whisked out to the judges by his fellow students.

When the judging process is finished, Joel Klein, president of the Chaine, stands up to make a speech. Customarily, he announces, only one chef is chosen to attend the regional competion, but if other cities can't produce a candidate, San Antonio might be able to send two. The winner of the Young Commis Rotisseur, Klein announces, is "Josh Rios!" "Josh Rios?" repeats Jesse Rios.

Klein, realizing his mistake, looks again at the cards: "Jesse Rios!" He shakes hands with Rios, before announcing the second-place winner: "John Tamez!" In the back of the room, some of the St. Philip's students look at each other and smile. Later, Klein confides: "Everyone loved the ice cream. `Tamez` would have ... it would have been very close; he was just about five minutes over." •