Joe Mikitish, a resident of Margate since August, has often found himself glued to his television set, watching and learning from cooking competition shows on the Food Network and other cable channels.
"I am addicted to those shows," the soon-to-be Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts graduate said.
Last week, Mikitish had the opportunity to essentially live a day in his favorite celebrity chef's shoes, representing his culinary school in the 2013 S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Northeast Regional cooking competition in New York City.
The competition, which launched in 2002, invites the leading culinary schools across the U.S. and Canada to display their finest. This year marked Atlantic Cape's first chance to send a chef, and Mikitish became the representative at his educators' requests.
Mikitish's former teacher, chef Jon Davies of Cape May, was the first to sign his student up.
"(He was chosen for) his poise, his grace under fire, his passion for food, his focus," Davies said.
After spending his holiday break perfecting his signature dish - hand-smoked salmon with Southwestern farro risotto, fried baby artichokes and pan-seared cherry tomatoes - Mikitish was ready to have his turn at the challenge.
"I sort of wanted to challenge myself and at least start with some ingredients that I hadn't worked with too much before," the 23-year-old said, having spent most of his time working on Spanish-style tapas as a line cook at Amada, a restaurant at Revel in Atlantic City.
Mikitish traveled with Davies to the Astor Center in New York City's East Village a day before his cooking skills were put to the test. The hours before the competition were filled with networking meals, on-camera training with the event's host, Salt Communications, and a visit from New York chef Matt Storch, Mikitish said.
"You have to really love this industry if you want to be in it," he said, summarizing Storch's advice. "If you're not willing to do the work, to get down and dirty, then you're in the wrong business. That stuck out to me because here I am, and I love everything about it. It was me to a T."
Growing up, Mikitish learned about food by observing his mother in the kitchen. It wasn't until he graduated with a business degree from Rutgers University two years ago that the option of cooking professionally became a realistic option.
"I didn't want to do a 9-to-5 job behind a computer," he said. "I wanted something a little more exciting, a little more dynamic."
At the competition, Mikitish found himself in an industrial commercial kitchen with two hours to prepare 10 portions of his dish, competing against seven of his peers. A panel of nine judges critiqued each dish from its presentation to its taste.
"It was definitely nerve racking getting up in front of these people that have worked for their entire lives, being successful running restaurants and doing what I intend to do one day," Mikitish said.
He received a bit of criticism for incorporating out-of-season vegetables in his dish, but overall his food was well-received, he said.
"All (the) judges, down the line, said that the fish was cooked perfectly, which is a great feeling," Mikitish said.
The culinary student didn't leave with the win, but said that he wouldn't trade the experience for the world.
"(I'd rate the experience a) 100 out of 10," he said, after returning home to Margate. "It was amazing. ... It opened my eyes to many different things, so many possibilities."
His mentor, Davies, was not disappointed that his student would not continue on to the finals in Napa, Calif., considering the subjectivity that often arises in a competition setting.
"It was a lot of tough competition. … I thought he performed admirably," he said.
Mikitish left happy, feeling more confident in his abilities in the kitchen and in front of the camera - an unexpected surprise.
As his current goals revolve around cooking up BBQ delights for his friends, tasting the cuisines of the world and eventually opening up his own restaurant, the possibility of being a Food Network star seemed, well, less farfetched.
"I never really saw myself as being good in front of the camera, but I got really great feedback. … (It) boosted my confidence a little there."
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