Chef competition, brew festival helps FIU United Way exceed campaign goal

FIU Master Chef picture

Andrew Rolle, assistant director at the Wolfe University Center, creating a veggie blend during the FIU Master Chef Competition

Elias Bardawil, Director of Wellness and Recreation Center at Biscayne Bay Campus, felt ready to face the inaugural FIU Master Chef cook-off. Then, the challenge for the first round was presented: create a vegetarian dish using at least four ingredients – bok choy, watermelon radish (whatever that is), avocado and an entire corn on the cob. In 30 minutes.

A group of amateur chefs at FIU including Bardawil pulled their apron strings tight and dove into the competition that would test the limits of their cooking skills.

On Jan. 22, FIU Master Chef Meets Brew Miami kicked off a completely new, first-of-its-kind event on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus. A two-part major fundraiser for FIU’s United Way Campaign, the event featured an all-out cooking battle followed by a celebration of food and a beer tasting.

More than 150 university community members attended the event, and thanks to FIU Master Chef contestants’ fundraising and the event’s ticket sales, FIU’s United Way Campaign exceeded its goal of $200,000 bringing in nearly $7,000 to the campaign.

It all started when Vanessa Vazquez, assistant director of Event Management in the Graham Center, shared her ideas with the FIU United Way Campaign Co-Chairs: External Relations Senior Vice President Sandra Gonzalez-Levy and Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Lunsford. Gonzalez-Levy and Lunsford embraced the idea, jump-starting the new event.

“Vanessa’s creative idea was a total success,” says Gonzalez-Levy. “Without her efforts and FIU’s United Way volunteer Advisory Committee we would have not accomplished exceeding this year’s goal of $200,000. Thank you to our FIU family as we continue to ‘live United.'”

The event kicked off in the afternoon with the battle of the chefs. Something of a combination between two cooking shows, Master Chef and Chopped, FIU Master Chef was open to all FIU faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Originally scheduled as an outdoor event, rain forced a change of plans; Vazquez and her team re-grouped and set up shop at the Graham Center Ballrooms.

More than 50 people initially applied, but only 13 finalists raised at least $350 toward FIU’s United Way Campaign, earning their spot at the show-down in the ballrooms.

FIU Master Chef pic

A few of the required ingredients for round two of the competition: chicken, mushrooms, and chipotle peppers

The competition, streamed live on FIU’s social  media, consisted of finalists creating entrée dishes during each of the three elimination rounds. Cooking stations were complete with electric burners, pots, pans, skillets, cutting boards and knives with a nearby food pantry – which contestants themselves gave suggestions on how to fill.

The catch: the mystery box. Each round, a mystery box would designate several ingredients contestants were required to include in the meal. Contestants could include as many other ingredients as were available in the pantry.

The time limit was another curveball. The original one-hour time limit was often cut in half to heat up the competition during rounds.

A group of local experts judged the competition: Gus Montes, chef at FIU’s Panther Premier; Eileen Andrade, owner and chef at FINKA Table & Tap; Benjamin Murray, chef at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental; and Albert Diaz, chef at Zuma Restaurant.

Lunsford, Sanyo Mathew, senior director of the Graham Center and Eddie Leon, owner of M.I.A. Beer Company participated as guest judges, one during each round.

And Laura Rodriguez, a reporter for NBC 6, was also Master of Ceremony.

“I loved it,” Vazquez says. “It was definitely an event people enjoyed participating in. It’s a fun way to fundraise.”

She adds part of the goal of the event was to get everyone involved, to highlight that competitive spirit at FIU and to have an event where people could literally get their hands into it.

Elias Bardawil won the first ever FIU Master Chef competition after cooking three dishes in four hours

Elias Bardawil won the first FIU Master Chef competition after cooking three dishes in four hours

Bardawil, who won first place at the competition, says the victory is a team victory: “I look at the win, not just as a win for me. I look at the win as a win for the university and the Division of Student Affairs.”

He adds he didn’t expect to win going in. He was just thinking of supporting his division and “giv[ing] it a good old college try.”

Bardawil created three dishes: a veggie meal consisting of black bean puree and fried eggs on avocados; grilled chicken with Mediterranean-style chopped onions and peppers on skewer sticks with jasmine rice lined up in a straight row on the plate; and his version of lomo saltado that included a smoked Gouda cheese sauce on top of steak.

With the caliber of the judges, Bardawil says, he’s just honored they liked his cooking.

“All the contestants went in not knowing what we were going to do. And they were all so excited to go through the journey with us,” Vazquez explains. “It says a lot about their personality and their commitment to the competition.”

For the Brew Miami portion of the event, craft breweries and restaurants set up between the Gold and Blue Parking Garages. People streamed in to taste all kinds of goodies – from duck sliders and ceviche to beer. Vazquez was happy to see how attendees enjoyed the food and drinks responsibly, and how the event drew the FIU community together.

FIU Master Chef Meets Brew Miami was hosted by the Graham Center in partnership with External Relations, Campus Life (MMC) and United Way, with the help of numerous university departments; it was sponsored by DigitalEra.