Vancouver Island University culinary student Kellie Callender is a man of steel in the kitchen

Nanaimo student cooks up winning entry

NANAIMO - VIU's Kellie Callender came home with the 'People's Choice' award in last week's S. Pellegrino Almost Famous cooking competition

Culinary student Kellie Callender has had a taste of success, after winning one of two titles dished out at the 2013 San Pellegrino Almost Famous Canadian regional competition in Toronto.

His creation – confit sockeye salmon with sunchoke puree, beet quinoa salad, crab stuffed leeks, crispy salmon skin, crispy leeks and sunchoke chips – won him the People’s Choice award at the prestigious competition, held Feb. 25.

During the two-day event, the students were given an orientation on the first day, and then competed the next evening.

In addition to cooking for the seven judges, which included members of the media and well-known chefs like Normand Laprise, about 150 samples of each dish had to be prepared for guests. The overall competition title went to Jean-Christophe Comtois from École hôtelière de la Capitale.

Callender, who has almost completed his second year of Vancouver Island University’s Culinary Arts diploma program, was one of seven students selected from schools across Canada to participate in the competition.

“When I submitted my recipe, I had no idea of the scale of the competition, and how prestigious it was,” he said. “So after coming to terms with that, it gave me a lot more motivation to focus on perfecting the techniques I was using and an opportunity to learn better ways to prepare the dish I was making.”

Callender said he based his recipe submission on his dietary needs and wants.

“The concept for the dish was ‘healthy West Coast food’,” he said. “I wanted to be practising things that I’d be happy eating.

“The salmon was the star of the dish – everyone had really great things to say about that.”

Callender, 26, was raised in Nanaimo and was in his mid-teens when he became a foodie.

“My mom made a lot of ethnic foods when I was growing up and that diversified my palate,” he said. “Then I started watching the food network 24/7.”

Quicker than you can say foccacia, he enrolled at VIU right after graduation, when culinary arts was only a one-year program.

After working in the food industry for several years, he came back to finish his diploma and will graduate in April. He hopes to develop his own niche in the industry as a business owner.

“This year has really changed my focus to the management side of cooking,” Callender said. “I like being able to meet the people I’m cooking for and having smaller groups.”

Until he graduates, Callender is entering as many competitions as he can, including recipe submission contests. He said the biggest spin-off of winning at the Almost Famous competition is having his name out there.

“I’ve been contacted by lots of people who saw how I did in the competition and want to follow my career and help me along the way as well,” he said.

The satisfaction of a flawless service when you’re under the gun is a surreal experience, but for Callender, passion is a dish best served on a plate.

“When you’re eating a really good meal, or when you have those inspirational eureka moments where you taste something and you’re like, ‘that’s how that should taste, there’s nothing I would change about this experience’… That’s a feeling that keeps me motivated,” Callender said.

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