By Jeremiah Dobruck
7:36 PM EDT, April 10, 2013
Counting the times he's cooked it at home and school, Vince Terusa thinks he's made his shallow-poached Dover sole appetizer at least 50 times.
The time that counts is Saturday.
This weekend, the Mission Viejo resident and four other Orange Coast College students on the college's Hot Food Team will perform under the judgment of professional chefs at the American Culinary Federation's regional conference in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where they'll fight for industry prestige.
"I guess if you asked your average restaurant chef about it, he or she may not know about it," team manager and coach Bill Barber said.
But, he said, for chefs tied to the American Culinary Federation it will be instantly recognizable, and for OCC students, it offers a broader view of the professional food world and a chance to impress.
"The reason that we do is it just for that reason, to really showcase the skill level of the students," Barber said. "That not only helps the students that are on the team … it elevates the whole level of the program in the eyes of the industry."
After winning the statewide event in February, this year's team of five OCC students — Alma Benitez, Santa Ana; Mary Conaty, Rancho Santa Margarita; Emilie Damgaard, Laguna Hills; Lauren Lopez, Westminster; and Terusa — will represent California among seven Western states.
Terusa, a 33-year-old music teacher, turned to food as a creative outlet.
"I've always loved to cook," he said. "I was basically living in a house with four other guys, and after eating McDonald's every day I started getting as super creative as I could. I had no training as all."
In 2010, he joined the culinary program at OCC at the prompting of his girlfriend.
"I basically just started doing this for fun," he said. But it's become a career.
He still teaches music, but since April he's worked as a line cook at St. Regis Monarch Beach resort's Motif restaurant in Dana Point.
This is the first year he's been invited to join the best of OCC's culinary program on their Hot Food Team.
Friday, the team will prepare a cold food spread of pâtés, terrines, meats and vegetables and be judged on everything from appearance to taste and technique.
Saturday brings the most intense competition.
In phase one, the five students will be randomly assigned to one of four tasks.
While a judge scrutinizes their technique, they will either butcher a chicken, fillet a fish, perform specific vegetable cuts or make a pastry cream and roll out tart dough.
Then comes the meal.
For months, Terusa and his teammates have practiced a set menu that includes an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert.
"There's quite a build up," he said. "We've practiced a lot, especially after we won the state. We really ramped up our practice schedule."
Essentially every day, Terusa has focused on each detail of his dish, from the main component to a yam gnocchi or Parisian scoops of parsnip and yam.
He refined his gnocchi after a judge at the state level found them a little too tough.
"It's a tremendous effort," Barber said of the process.
It's a rarity for a community college to have such an in-depth culinary program, he said, noting that each of OCC's competitors on the state level was a private school.
If OCC triumphs at regionals, which it has done seven times under Barber, the team will continue to the national championship in Las Vegas this July.
"We're not a big school, but we dedicate time to the Hot Food Team," Barber said.