Amanda Lee holds her boarding pass prize after winning the United States of Umami Culinary Competition

ICE Student Amanda Lee Wins Umami Competition

The Culinary Arts student and Marea extern is headed to Japan.

Amanda Lee competed against culinary students from four schools at the United States of Umami Culinary Competition in Charleston, South Carolina, last week.

In September, six ICE students prepared their interpretations of umami for faculty judges at our New York campus. They were challenged with developing first and main courses, one of which was plant-based and one that represented each student’s heritage. Graded on flavor enhancement, balance, understanding of umami and technical ability, Amanda Lee won the opportunity to compete in the national event hosted by the World Umami Forum and Ajinomoto Co. Inc. She trained for the following month with Director of Culinary Research and Development Barry Tonkinson to refine her dishes, timing and craftsmanship, and ultimately won the grand prize trip to Japan. Here, she shares her experience to inspire other students.

We were required to create two dishes — one that was plant-based and one that was inspired by our heritage. Both came together naturally for me because they were from the heart. My heritage-based appetizer is an elevated, ”grown-up” bite of my childhood food memories and Chinese-Korean background. I featured my parents’ favorite foods, duck and persimmon, and layered them with my own umami-rich favorites that I grew up with: watercress, daikon and shiitake. There were so many separate flavors and techniques that went into this dish and somehow magically combined into a cohesive and delicious bite. It was a true representation of my family that I was proud to present to the judges.

Glazed duck, burnt onion and fuyu persimmon jam, marinated daikon, fried watercress and watercress oil
Glazed duck, burnt onion and fuyu persimmon jam, marinated daikon, fried watercress and watercress oil

My vegetarian dish was inspired by all of my personal favorites that I like to use at home, including spaghetti squash, mushrooms, eggplant, sesame and shiso. I had never thought to try eating them all together with one composed dish, so this competition challenged me to extract as much umami as possible to create a delicious entree that really highlights how vegetables can stand on their own as the stars, not just as an accompaniment to meat. Umami-rich vegetarian dishes like these are a sustainable step in the right direction.

Roasted eggplant squash, charred eggplant and miso puree, coal-grilled oyster mushroom and shiso gremolata
Roasted eggplant squash, charred eggplant and miso puree, coal-grilled oyster mushroom and shiso gremolata

Winning this competition was the cherry on top, but I think what I’ll cherish and remember more is the incredible, exciting journey I took to get there. I am the type of person who will sometimes let uncertainty and self-doubt close off the door to incredible opportunities such as this one. I entered this competition with no expectations, hesitation of my skill level and a fairly timid mindset. During our initial practices, I would always jokingly tell Chef Barry that I felt like I was “a ‘hot mess express’ who just wanted to be elegant like him.” After winning the primary in-school round, practicing and improving under his guidance, and finally performing under the pressure of the final competition, I would now say with confidence that I have definitely gained the elegance I once aspired to have.

I earned valuable experience with organization and professionalism in the kitchen that would have taken me years to learn at my own pace. Not only did I learn an incredible amount about umami, balancing flavors, proper cooking techniques and technical skills that will help make me a more knowledgeable chef, but more notably, I have learned so much about myself and gained confidence that I hope will also push me further towards my career goals.

Reflecting upon all of that, I highly encourage everyone else to take that chance and compete. Even if you don’t bring home the gold, there is truly so much to be learned along the way. I am so honored, humbled and grateful to ICE for this priceless experience.

Go for the gold with career training at ICE.

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