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Assiniboine students cook up tasty treats

What the heck is pork collar?

That was my first question when I was told it would be the star of the Manitoba Pork competition held at the Assiniboine Community College’s culinary arts program Wednesday.

Five years or so ago, collar was touted as “the next pork belly,” apparently. It’s the part of the shoulder that runs from the base of the pig’s neck to the tip of the loin, in case readers aren’t familiar, either.

First-year students Drew Curtis, Sam Pople and Wagner Zhen were given three and a half hours to whip up an appetizer, with pork belly, and a main, with the collar. They were also provided asparagus and other vegetables, berries and basic staples.

“They’ve got some different cooking methods going on,” said instructor Chef Bryan Hendricks. “Especially Samantha.”

Pople opted to treat her pork collar to a warm, all-night, vacuum-sealed bath. In other words, rather than using an oven or a frying pan, she chose sous vide. This won her some points from the judges, including me. Roasting and panfrying could not match the tenderness of sous vide.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The competition started out pretty low-key. I first made my way around the state-of-the-art kitchen to locate the three young hopefuls in the prep area.

Curtis, who plans on taking the culinary arts program’s second year and likely a year in business, at first thought she’d take the hotel and restaurant management program. But encouragement from the college’s soccer team, for which she plays, led her to change her mind.

Pople, however, comes to the program from a stint at university.

“I really didn’t like it,” she said.

“I love cooking. I love doing hands-on stuff. So coming here just seemed like a natural option.”

Zhen, who hails from Brazil, has loved cooking since he was little.

“I wasn’t that great at school, and this is what I wanted from a young age,” he said. “I want to be a cook and maybe open a restaurant.” 

The students, who were graded on a variety of categories, such as presentation, texture, technique, and creativity, confessed to being a bit anxious.

“Definitely a little nervous, a little excited. A bit of both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, but a little bit of nerves keeps you sharp,” Pople said.

They seemed relaxed, though, and they spoke eloquently about what they had in store for us.

But as time wore on, the tension was unmistakable. Each became laser-focused. We judges were not privy to what was going on in the kitchen as we waited for the mains, which were supposed to be ready by 1:30. They weren’t, and this would cost them all points.

All three did a great job of incorporating local touches to their dishes, with Curtis giving a nod to our coming spring season, opting to keep her choices on the lighter side.

The three vied for a first-place $800 prize and a second-place $600 prize. Pople came out ahead overall, though, in the appetizer category, and Zhen wowed with his bold moves.

He sliced the pork belly and served it with a blueberry barbecue sauce over fried bannock, with pickles, coleslaw, and a creamy concoction to top it off. This may sound strange, but it worked.

Pople’s appetizer is also worth mentioning. She opted for a Korean barbecue approach to the pork belly, and the mix of sweet and spice was easy on the palate.

Zhen and Curtis tied for second to the half mark.

» mletourneau@brandonsun.com

» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.

Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun