In the Perth Hall cafeteria on Thursday night, the air was thick with the smell of cooking oil as the four contestants of the third annual CHOPT Western competition raced to create dishes that would win the heart of the judges.
Organized by the operations manager of residence dining, Craig Clifford, Perth’s event was the latest in a string of many CHOPT competitions at Saugeen, Delaware, Essex, Ontario and Elgin Hall.
“They’ve been really well received, especially at Saugeen and Delaware," said Clifford. "At Delaware they were even holding up signs saying ‘Represent’ or shouting out suggestions.”
The positive reception from previous residences bled over into Perth, as first-year medical sciences student, Sammy Chu, explained, “Seeing them compete at Elgin Hall made me want to join.”
The competition itself consisted of 45 minutes for the contestants to cook with their supply of two burners, a pantry of ingredients and four mystery, mandatory ingredients that were only revealed just prior to the start. Afterwards, the judges viewed each participant's two dishes, one for taste and one for presentation, to decide a winner. A 'People's Choice' would also be awarded based on ballots from the audience.
One of these judges was Vikram Vij, a celebrity chef featured on Food Network Canada's Chopped, whose passion for cooking and engagement with everyone around him was evident throughout. He never stopped moving, whether it be regaling the audience or helping out the contestants during cooking — sometimes pouring a little more oil into their pans. All this happened while the CHOPT Snapchat crew constantly shot the frenetic cooking.
“Anything that is genuinely heartfelt, whether it is a competition or just a person cooking, a person putting passion behind it is the most important thing," Vij explains of his philosophy. "It’s not about a competition, it's more about showcasing the passion and love of the students.”
All four competitors discovered their love of cooking at a young age. Austin Tam, a first-year computer science and BMOS student, says he was taught by his mom. “She taught me Hong Kong style, Singapore, Italian, Asian, from when I was 10 years old."
Many of them were fans of Vij, like first-year BMOS student Doug Chiu who said, “It’d be a great honour meeting him and having him taste my food.” Second-year medsci student Megha Shetty echoed his sentiments as Vij is a “favourite of hers.”
Tam's dish was a Hong Kong style pasta with a tropical salad, Chu created a potato cheese cauliflower medley with steamed rice on the side, Chiu cooked a cauliflower hash, pasta with Vij's sauce, and fried chicken, while Shetty made some aloo gobi and a tandoori paneer.
Ultimately, it was Shetty who took home the judge’s trophy, while Chu made off with the People’s Choice award. All participants received signed copies of Vij’s cookbook, as well as an increased passion for the cooking arts.