Student Chef of the Year 2018

Julio Chavez competes for Student Chef of the Year 2018

Julio Chavez in the kitchen cutting vegetablesThis summer, SUNY Delhi culinary arts major Julio Chavez has his sights set on something only four other students in the United States have a chance to achieve: the title for the National Student Chef of the Year 2018. The battle for the championship will take place in New Orleans, LA, near the French Quarter, July 15-19 at the "Cook. Craft. Create. National Convention & Show," sanctioned and organized by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).

Julio earned his spot in the finals by first winning the ACF Northeast Regional competition in Buffalo, NY, in February. At the nationals, he will face contenders representing the Southeast, Western, and Central regions of America.

”I’m really excited to compete,” Julio says. “I’m doing everything I can to be ready.”

In preparation for the competition, Julio is spending his summer practicing and perfecting the dish he has chosen to compete with. (Though the dish will remain a secret until the competition, we do know that it is a nod to his Mexican roots.) Julio lives on campus, a stone’s throw from the Alumni Hall Hospitality Center kitchen where he practices 15-20 hours a week. He also works 25 hours a week as a chef at the Mexican Steakhouse at Greenane Farms and is getting ready for his final semester in college before graduation in the fall.

It’s a big challenge, but Julio won’t have to face it alone. He is working closely with Chef Sean Pehrsson, assistant professor of Business & Hospitality at SUNY Delhi, who has been coaching and mentoring Julio since he joined the Delhi culinary competition team in his sophomore year. Julio already has bronze and silver medals under his belt from previous ACF competitions.

“We’re obviously really proud of everything Julio has achieved so far,“ says Pehrsson. “What makes him such a great student to work with is his motivation and good attitude. He takes criticism well and is always willing to keep perfecting his dish.”

Once the dish was conceptualized with input from Pehrsson, Julio started doing daily “runs” against the clock to make the designated time allowed at competition: 15 minutes to set up the station, 60 minutes to cook, 10 minutes to plate for the four judges, and 25 minutes to clean up and leave the kitchen. It’s a tight timeline: at his first practice, Julio went 23 minutes overtime. A few weeks in, he is coming up just three minutes shy of making the time.

“We keep refining the technique to see how we can streamline it or cut a step to save time,” says Julio. As he works, Chef Pehrsson takes notes and gives him critiques. Whenever something goes wrong, it is used as a teachable moment. “I completely trust his feedback. He’s there for me and wants me to do well.”

Even with the time pressure, there are no shortcuts to a winning dish. The judges want to see how much skill the contestants can showcase in one dish: knife skills, techniques, precision, any other strengths they have. As much as it is about removing unnecessary steps, it’s about including those that highlight the students’ talents.

At the competition, judges will also observe each contestant as they work in the kitchen: are they using the correct knife for each task, are their stations clean, are they following sanitary precautions and even sorting their waste appropriately into composting and recycling bins? The kitchen score will account for part of the total points they receive.

“With the judges hovering over you in the kitchen, I get a little nervous, but it also pushes me to show them what I know and what I can do,” Julio says. “I am completely focused on my dish.”

The second part of the score comes from the judges’ tasting points. Julio is not worried about that. “I’m Mexican and I know spices. Flavor is everything.”

Although Chef Pehrsson fully believes in his student, he’s seen a lot of competitions and knows what can go wrong. What if he misses a step, knocks over his stock, or cuts himself? You just have to go in well-rehearsed in your process and prepare for any possibility the best you can.

Julio knows that the other contestants will be just as driven to win as he is. “They seem like students who know what they’re doing. Afterwards, whoever wins, we’ll probably be friends. We all share the same passion.”

When asked what winning the National Student Chef of the Year title would mean to him, Julio doesn’t hesitate. He would dedicate his victory to his parents.

“My parents really struggled to bring our family from Mexico to the United States when I was five years old. They worked hard to give me what they never were able to have: a good life and an education. I’m grateful that they’ve always supported me. I want my success to be their reward.”

And if he doesn’t win? “Everything is a learning experience. I will just keep working. I already have great job offers to look forward to after graduation so my future is looking good. The incredible culinary program at SUNY Delhi has changed my life.”

Although the stakes will be high when Julio enters the competition arena in New Orleans in July, he will have the support of Chef Pehrsson, his hot food competition team members, and his parents, all of whom will be there to watch him compete and to cheer him on. Back home on the campus, everyone at Delhi will be rooting for him, too.

 Culinary Arts Programs at SUNY Delhi