By Anne Hartman
Photos by Camelia Malkami
Saturday of Homecoming Weekend had the makings of a perfect day: Sunny skies with a nearly 80 degree temperature, a campus bustling with students and parents clad in maroon, and a friendly competition that pitted dining commons chefs against each other. The chefs teamed up with members of the UChicago Dining Grill Club for the University’s first Weber Grill Competition, and the delicious results had guests scraping their plates clean.
The idea for the competition came about as a way to give students a chance to interact—and pick up a few cooking tips—from chefs in Baker, Bartlett, and Cathey Dining Commons, and as a way to showcase meat from local suppliers, said Bartlett Sous Chef Gerri Clay.
Each team was given steak, pork ribs, charcoal, and a grill and was tasked with creating a dish that would wow a panel of judges for its originality, plating, and flavors. The Baker team made Southern-style dry ribs with coleslaw and a grilled steak with a Southern compound butter, the Bartlett team served up root beer BBQ chipotle ribs and a spice-rubbed steak, and the winning Cathey team served Memphis-maple glazed ribs with bourbon baked beans and an African-spiced grilled BBQ steak with autumn jicama slaw.
The day was a true collaboration between the chefs and Grill Club members. The chefs created the menus, and the Grill Club stepped in to help with marinating the meats, making fresh coleslaw, tossing salads, and plating the food. In addition to cooking tips, students picked up safety techniques, like how to prevent contamination and knife skills.
“My favorite part of the day was seeing how wonderful these chefs were as teachers,” said Mike Levine, Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations & Development and one of the competition’s five judges. “And not only were they teaching them, it was teaching at the highest level.”
Second-year JP Castella, who founded the Grill Club last year, said the event gave the students a deeper appreciation for the chefs and the work that they do.
“I enjoyed seeing the students getting to know the individual chefs on a level that just isn’t customary when interacting with them in dining halls,” Castella said. “There’s only so much interaction that goes on in the dining halls, but once you’re behind the scenes with a chef, it just created a camaraderie that wasn’t there before.”
“We want students to be excited about eating our food,” Clay added. “When they see who’s cooking their food, how it’s being cooked, and where it comes from, they appreciate the integrity of the food more.”
The competition was the first event for the Grill Club, which Castella started, with help from Levine, to feel connected to his Texas roots at UChicago. Future plans for the club include more collaborations with UChicago Dining, grilling classes, and visits to local steakhouses and barbecue restaurants. Whatever the venture, Castella wants the club to be a way for students to unwind.
“There’s no pressure, and anyone is welcome to join,” he said. “It’s a way to gather socially and enjoy good food.”