A harried John Mullett tore around the Ivy Tech kitchen Friday, back and forth from the stove to a prep table. He furiously stirred a concoction in a pan on the stove, then darted over to the ice machine. “Ice!” he bellowed, warning bystanders to get out of his way. He shoved a scoop in twice, filling a pan with ice, then raced back to the prep table, where he had to rein in his energy to painstakingly plate his food.
There was a good reason for Mullett's intensity.
He was in the throes of a cooking contest, one with a special prize: He was vying to be one of eight Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast culinary students who would win a trip to France to study culinary arts for two weeks in May.
Jeff Bunting, the program chair for Hospitality Administration at the school, said Ivy Tech has been doing the competition for about 10 years. Seventeen students participated in this year's Mystery Basket Competition: 11 who had four hours to plan, prepare, plate and serve a starter, entrée and dessert; and six who had 4 hours, 15 minutes to bake and serve a chocolate dessert, a fruit dessert, a yeast bread and a decorated cake.
As if that wasn't hard enough, the students doing the starter, entrée and dessert were given three “mystery” ingredients they had to use: a meat, a fish and a vegetable. They didn't find out specifically what they were until Friday morning.
A still-sweating Mullett sat down to talk shortly after he was done preparing and plating his food. Between drinks of water he talked about his fitful sleep the two days before the competition: He'd sleep, then wake up either with an idea or the feeling he was in the competition and something had gone wrong.
The only thing he was able to plan ahead was the dessert. He decided to go out of the box and try some molecular gastronomy. His pots de crème — sort of a creamy custard — was garnished with something akin to noodles made out of orange juice.
Mullett's “mystery” ingredients were grouper, pork and turnips. The Ivy Tech kitchen and pantry were stocked with all the other ingredients he would need.
The way the contest works, the students have a half-hour to plan their menu, then about four hours to prepare the food. They have a 20-minute window in which all three courses must be served.
Shortly after the mystery ingredients were announced, Mullett had a plan. The grouper would be used for a ceviche appetizer, in which the fish is marinated in citrus, “cooking” the fish without heat. It was served with a cucumber and scallion slaw.
He marinated the pork and grilled it. It was served on robuchon potatoes, sort of like mashed potatoes, except the potatoes are put through a ricer for an almost runny texture. Mullett's recipe is one pound of butter to two pounds of potatoes, plus a little milk, salt and pepper.
The turnips were diced and sautéed.
While he was talking, Mullett retrieved from his pocket a rather soggy piece of paper in which he had timed out his entire four hours, so he would know what needed to be done when. On another paper he had written his menu, so he wouldn't get confused and forget what he was preparing.
It all went well until the last few minutes of plating. “Things were running really tight,” he said. “It's stressful the whole time. It gets hot in there.”
Mullett, 35, is in his last semester at Ivy Tech. He will graduate with an associate's degree of applied science, with a dual concentration in culinary and pastry.
He has big plans after graduation. Mullett will move to the Czech Republic, where he had three standing job offers. His plan is to stay there five years. “The food scene is really up and coming,” he said of the country.
Mullett also has some big plans in May: He was one of the winners of the competition, so will travel to France for two weeks in May.