FIU community cooks for a cause: United Way


Left to right: Winner and hospitality management major Christian Torres; third place winner and health policy professor Timothy Page; second place winner and alumnus Jordan Acosta

Eleven FIU students, staff and alumni rolled up their sleeves, sharpened their knives and set out to cook for a cause at the 2017 Taste of FIU Cook-Off.

Duck breast with a red endive salad, prepared by Office of Class Management staff member Barbara Pita

Hosted in the Graham Center ballrooms on Dec. 1, the cook-off was paired with a holiday auction. Proceeds from the events benefited United Way of Miami-Dade, a nonprofit that works to improve education, financial stability and health in the community. To participate in the cook-off, contestants each had to raise at least $400 for the cause.

Each round challenged the university’s aspiring chefs to use a basket of required “mystery ingredients” in their dishes, as well as any additional ingredients they chose from a table of fresh vegetables, fruits, spices and more. The produce was donated by Coosemans Worldwide, a specialty supplier that sources produce from around the world.

Round one challenged contestants to make the first-ever vegan meal featured at Taste of FIU, incorporating butterscotch, citrusy Buddha’s hand fruit, purple wax beans and a vegan sauce supplied by the Miami health food restaurant Diced. In round two, contestants cooked up plates of duck breast with popcorn shoots, baby carrots and black garlic. For the final round, they whipped together mascarpone, manchego and apricots to create desserts with complex flavor combinations.

Christian Torres’ vegan cauliflower tacos

Hospitality management senior Christian Torres’ vegan cauliflower tacos; pan-fried, Argentinian-style duck; and deconstructed crêpe with apricot and grated manchego cheese won him the 2017 Taste of FIU title.

Torres, an aspiring chef who hopes to own a restaurant one day, signed up for Taste of FIU to increase exposure for his food page: @elwoodenspoon on Instagram. And before the cook-off, he had never had his food critiqued by a professional chef.

“After graduating FIU, I plan to go to culinary school,” Torres said. “This is my first cooking competition ever, and I felt extremely intimidated having chefs in front of me just because I’m an amateur craving their approval and their appreciation.”

Stephen Piechnik, sous chef at KYU in Miami and Taste of FIU judge, said the contestants all showed growth over the three rounds, so that’s how the judges based their decision. Contestants were also judged on their use of all ingredients in the mystery basket, flavor of their dishes and presentation.

Chef and cook-off judge Alex Diaz asks contestant Jordan Acosta about his process.

“Throughout the contest, you could see the progression of everyone. Everyone has been making [the mystery ingredients] work for them,” Piechnik said.

He and Alex Diaz, private chef at Palmar restaurant and fellow Taste of FIU judge, selected the mystery basket ingredients – some of which they themselves had not even used in recipes.

“It’s fun to see how much people appreciate food in the end,” Diaz said. “From a chef’s point of view, we see the dishes deconstructed in our minds before we even create a dish. But the contestants are just going off of what they taste and see in front of them as they cook. Some stuff they may have never used or heard of before.”

The cook-off and auction raised a combined $17,532 for the United Way, with more than $5,700 of that raised by the contestants.

Deborah Garcia prepares spicy duck breast served on a bed of roasted carrots.

Deborah Garcia, a special events manager for the Graham Center and a self-proclaimed “foodie,” said she jumped at the opportunity to join her love for cooking with her passion for United Way.

“I’ve been involved with United Way for the last two years as a LINC [Lead. Impact. Network. Change.] member, and I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer and be a hands-on part of the work they do for our community,” said Garcia, who concocted a vegetable curry stew served over couscous with a butterscotch garnish during the vegan round.

“Participating in Taste of FIU was a truly amazing and rewarding experience,” she said. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone and, without a doubt, I intend to participate again next year.”