The Food Services team recently had a chance to sit down with the four inspiring student chefs (Ailin Xi, Felipe Branco, Avkash Mukhi and Ongelle-Lise Burnett) who make up U of T’s student Iron Chef team for 2018. Each of them brings their own individual culinary inspirations and skills to the table, and together, they have a unique energy and spirit and are aiming for gold.
This is Ailin Xi’s second year on the team. She says that this year, she feels a tremendous synergy with her colleagues and they work together as an efficient group in a really organic and unforced manner.
“We are working hard but really having a lot of fun at the same time,” she says.
“All of us love cooking and all of us have brought different cultural and ethnic flavours and backgrounds to our work here. I’m from Shanghai, China, so my cooking base is very Chinese but I’ve also studied Korean, French, Italian and Japanese cuisine,” she adds. Xi is also a trained sketch artist who sings and plays guitar.
Avkash Mukhi is of Indian descent but was born and raised in Japan. He started baking as a child and that is what led him to a love of cooking even while he was still in high school. He is an industrial engineering student and cooks for his friends all the time. He’s really excited about the new ingredients and flavours that the team has been practicing with.
“The great thing about the team is that we all have different strengths. We also all have our own tasks in the kitchen that we can do without interfering with anyone else’s, but when we need to, we blend our work as well,” he says.
“Generally, the kitchen techniques that we are using a lot more Western than I’m used to, so that has been a great learning experience for me. We’ve also used some vegetables that were completely new to me and other ingredients like caper berries and sumac that I’d never used before. All in all it’s great to learn about different types of food styles and techniques,” he adds.
Avkash says that part of their intense preparation has been practising a repertoire of recipes that can be modified or tweaked according to the surprise ingredients that are presented to them at the competition.
Felipe Branco is also participating for the second year in a row. He is a Rotman Master’s student and comes from Brazil but spent extended periods working in the food industry in Italy. So while his base culinary influence is Brazilian and South American, he has a large European influence in his creations.
“I think we all really compliment each other,” he says.
“Some of us for example are better at plating, and some of us are better at flavours, so we really work well together and most of all, we really listen to one another,” he adds.
Branco, who founded the Rotman Culinary Club, says that every member of the team has their own favourite recipes, but are all open to new ideas. So, they have been able to consider traditional recipes, but also been willing to take some risks and create what he calls a unique fusion.
“The other thing that is amazing about the team is that we are all international students, so we all bring international flavours with us. Ailin has her Asian influences, Avkash has Indian and Japanese and of course Ongelle-Lise with her knowledge of African spices and fresh herbs. It’s great,” he adds.
Ongelle-Lise Burnett is a creative writing student who hails from Guyana. She says she is the main cook in her family, a skill that was passed down to her from her grandmother.
“The really great part about this team is the way we are all learning from one another. This has been a chance not just to cook together but to actually share parts of our culture with others,” she says.
Ongelle says that working in a professional kitchen has been a really incredible part of the process and that working with new ingredients has also been inspiring.
“Guyanese culture actually has six different races and then a seventh mixed race, so there is a real mix of cuisines. I like to cook Indo-Gyanese, Afro-Guyanese and Creole Gyanese dishes, and I love using spices. My favourite things are the spices and fresh herbs. Whenever we have them in the kitchen I just run to them, lots and lots of fresh herbs,” she says.
The preparations for the competition have already figured prominently in one of Ongelle’s creative writing assignments at U of T. She says it was a natural thing to write about and that her professors and classmates are big supporters of her culinary pursuits in general and the competition specifically.
The cohesion of the team, she adds, is a really unique and special part of the whole experience.
“I feel like I have found my food soulmates,” she says.
We here at Food Services wish our team good luck and will be rooting for you as you head to Montreal this weekend!
For more of our student chefs:
Ailin can be found on Instagram @ailinnnnxi
Ongelle’s Insta is @grannygrandchild
Felipe is @felipebranco and the Rotman Culinary Club can be found @Rotman_Culinary_Club