Soquel’s own culinary whiz kid takes us behind the scenes of competitive cooking
In the United States, most people associate the act of turning 21 with one thing: the ability to legally purchase and consume alcohol. But for Soquel native Reilly Meehan, who just reached the milestone in November, being 21 has an even better perk: He can now study the art of wine pairing.
It’s a passion that’s out of the norm for people his age, but for Reilly, a burgeoning chef who just earned the title of American Culinary Federation Western Region Student Chef of the Year, in March, wine pairing is the next conquest in a long line of skills he hopes to master in the kitchen.
The son of Seabright Brewery owner Charlie Meehan, Reilly grew up in the kitchen, helping prepare food at his father’s restaurant and absorbing knowledge as he watched friends and family reinvent traditional dishes. “I always sort of had an inkling that I wanted to do something in the food world,” says Meehan.
But it wasn’t until he was set to go to UC Davis for his undergraduate studies, that Meehan took a leap of faith and followed his passion to the Professional Culinary Institute (now called the French Culinary Institute) in Campbell instead. “My parents would have probably been a little more comfortable [with UC Davis],” he admits. “But, I worked twice as hard at culinary school as I would have at college. I made it work for me, and made something of it. … And my parents couldn’t be more proud.”
All of that hard work has surely paid off. As a result of having won the regional student competition, Meehan has qualified to compete at the ACF National Convention in Florida in July. There, he will cook in front of a live audience for a chance at $1,000 and an invitation to the first round of the highly regarded Hans Bueschkens Junior Chefs Challenge in Las Vegas, Nev., where he will take on chefs from Canada, Central America and South America. Should he win that round, Meehan will then go on to compete in Norway in 2014.
Asked how Meehan manages the pressure of cooking in front of a live audience and judges—who track scores based on how sanitary one’s kitchen is, cleanliness, whether the flavors work well together, proper cooking technique, etc.—he says, “It’s sort of weird having the judges loom over you. I try to equate it to if you’re a cook and your chef is in the kitchen, you put out your best product for your chef. So when he’s watching over you, you gotta step up.”
His response to audience pressure is a whole other story, however. “I did a lot of acting and drama in high school, so I sort of like it,” Meehan says with a laugh. “I was sort of used to having a lot of people watching. I still get really shaky when I do my stuff, but it’s sort of natural, I guess.”
Whatever uneasiness he may be feeling under pressure certainly doesn’t translate to the plate, though.
A Call to Create
To call one of Meehan’s creations “food,” is to almost demean it. From the swirling sauces, to the colorful array of meats and vegetables, to the inventive display, Meehan’s dishes appeal to the eyes, the nose and the taste buds.
“I think [cooking] is an artistic outlet for me,” explains Meehan. “I’ll show a lot of my friends pictures of my food, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like art; it’s like a painting.’”
The transition to the culinary world has come naturally to Meehan, who took art classes throughout his youth, in addition to participating in theater productions.
To win the regional student competition, Meehan’s artistic eye came in handy when he was presented with the outline for this year’s competition: Each competitor had 60 minutes to cook, 10 minutes to plate (or display) his/her dishes, and chicken was a mandatory ingredient. “Once I’m told ‘chicken,’ I get whatever leeway I want,” explains Meehan. While there are restrictions on how much can be cut, peeled and prepped ahead of time, the vision for the meal is up to each individual chef.
For the main chicken component, Meehan layered the chicken breast with truffles, herbs, and various other ingredients, and proceeded to wrap it in prosciutto. For the secondary chicken piece, he stuffed a chicken wing with chicken sausage. He then roasted the chicken bones to make the sauce, and added sautéed asparagus plus asparagus custard made from the stalk of the vegetable, to create a more balanced meal. “A lot of it is utilization, so you try to use as much of the chicken as possible, so you have no waste,” he says.
Winning the competition was a dream come true for Meehan, who says he’s been dying to participate ever since he started culinary school. “It’s one [competition] that my chef (Randy Torres, CEC) has put a few students in and they’ve never succeeded,” he explains, “so that was my main goal—I wanted to bring this home for him.”
Aside from affording him the opportunity to compete for the national title in Florida, as a result of winning the regional competition, Meehan was flown to South Korea in early May to watch another young American chef, Daniel Gorman, compete in (and win) the Hans Bueschkens Junior Chefs Challenge. For Meehan, the trip was more of a learning experience than a vacation.
“It’s one of the craziest competitions I’ve seen; I mean, the level of competition in Korea is that much higher,” he says. Asked if he took anything away from observing, Meehan said, “You always learn about how to keep yourself more organized in the kitchen. I think that’s one thing that people don’t realize is a big part of [being a chef]. Especially for me, I know that if I work organized and clean, the food’s going to come out clean. So, seeing [Gorman] helped me; I got a few tips from what he was doing and how all of his stuff was in order.”
Along for the Korea trip was Edalyn Garcia, one of Meehan’s self-proclaimed “student mentors,” and captain for the 2012 ACF Culinary Youth Team USA, of which Meehan is also a member. The team, based out of the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute—where Meehan transferred after his chef at the Professional Culinary Institute, Torres, took a teaching job there—competed in a tryout in 2010 at the ACF National Convention, earned the title of Team USA, and has been training ever since for the 2012 IKA/Olympiade der Köche, commonly referred to as the Culinary Olympics, which will take place in Germany in October.
Since Meehan has recently graduated from the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute and is back living in Soquel, preparing for the Culinary Olympics requires Meehan to drive up to Oregon once a month to practice with Team USA. Luckily, the requirements for the competition have already been announced, so every team knows what they will be expected to cook.
“For the first course, we have to make a cold vegetarian appetizer, so we’re doing something with beets, goat cheese, cucumber, and stuff,” divulges Meehan. “And then the second course is a hot seafood entrée.”
Regardless of the number of hours that Meehan and his team spend in the kitchen, he says that mistakes do happen on occasion. And while it’s not the ideal scenario in a competitive atmosphere, he believes that the ability to bounce back is a vital skill to learn.
“It’s sort of a matter of just being able to adapt to whatever you have available,” he explains. “So, when I do these competitions, I usually bring a back-up of everything I have outside my kitchen … if I need to, I’ll dip into that stuff.” When something does go awry in the kitchen, Meehan says, “If I have time, I’ll remake it. Some people will say, ‘Oh no, it’s OK, I’ll just go with this one.’ It’s about making the choice to push forward. Especially the short ones, like 60-minute competitions, if you’re off a couple minutes, you’re late, and that’s a lot of points off. So if you have to stop and totally remake something, it could totally ruin your outcome.”
Whether Team USA wins or loses at the Culinary Olympics, Meehan relishes in the opportunity to compete with the best of the best.
“I went to a similar competition in Luxembourg last year, and just seeing so many people who are so passionate, so dedicated, in one place—that’s what I’m excited about,” he says. “Obviously I want to win and want us to do the best we can, but for me, I’m just excited to see the highest caliber food that’s out there right now.”
In the meantime, Meehan plans to expand his culinary know-how at home. For inspiration in the kitchen, once a month, he treats himself to a new cookbook, which he then marks up based on whichever recipes and photos appeal to him. Keeping up with his favorite food blog, Ideas In Food (ideasinfood.com)—another important source of tantalizing culinary concoctions—is also a must. “It’s very modern,” Meehan says of the blog’s recipes, “but they do a lot of down-to-earth stuff, you know, like they’ll do super modern brownies, or something like that. It’s approachable but different.”
Asked if ‘approachable but different,’ is an appropriate categorization for his own culinary creations, Meehan said, “I like to think so, because I don’t want to put a dish in front of someone and have them be like, ‘What am I eating?’ I want them to feel sort of familiar with it, but at the same time, sort of wowed that it’s a little different than what they’re used to.”
In Santa Cruz County and the Bay Area, Meehan is able to put his creativity to the test as a private events chef. While at first he worried that his age would hurt his chances of getting hired, he says he’s come to realize that being young is what makes him special and different.
“It’s definitely a trendy thing to be cooking and to be into food,” says Meehan. “It’s opened a lot of doors for young cooks and young chefs. But it’s about weeding out the ones that are actually going to be good and stick with it.”
When he is controlling the menu, Meehan says his focus is, “to make my food young and hip, and hopefully the people who come to me to do an event are going to understand that that’s my kind of food, and they’re not going to ask me to do prime rib roast with horseradish, or whatever. But, he is the first to admit that his go-to ingredient at home is bacon. “I got yelled at in culinary school for using bacon too much,” Meehan says with a laugh. “My chef was like, ‘Reilly, you can’t put bacon in everything!’ I wanted to tell him, ‘Watch me,’ but I didn’t.”
Now that culinary school is over, Meehan is in the process of determining the next step in his career. On the one hand, he says he would love to continue doing private dinners and events in a place like San Francisco, but at the same time, he believes it would be beneficial to get some restaurant experience under his belt, just in case.
If given the opportunity to work at any restaurant in the world, Meehan says, without any hesitation, that he would love to work at The French Laundry. “That’s one of those restaurants that has such a reputation, that if you’ve worked there, people are going to look at you twice no matter where you go, and if they see that on your resume, you’re instantly something special.”
The world-renowned restaurant, located in Yountville, Calif.—just north of San Francisco in Napa Valley—is run by one of Meehan’s idols, culinary luminary Thomas Keller. Of Keller’s cooking style, Meehan says, “It’s so clean and simple, but you know that all the flavors are going to work together perfectly, and everything is going to be cooked perfectly, and be flawless.
“There is a lot of tendency in young chefs to want to chuck so much stuff on a plate and so many strange flavors together, just to be different,” he continues. “But Thomas Keller’s food is just simple. As long as it’s perfectly executed and perfectly seasoned, it’s good.”
On a mission to reach that level of culinary expertise, Meehan is doing everything in his power to become a well-rounded chef. So, besides branching out into wine pairing meals, he currently has his eyes set on desserts. Since he is not traditionally trained in making pastries, he says the learning process has been a rough but rewarding challenge.
“It’s totally different—before, you could add a little salt or thin something out a little bit in savory, [but with desserts] you mess up a gram of an ingredient and your recipe’s wrong or maybe your cake doesn’t rise,” Meehan says. “I think in the long run it’s made me such a stronger chef because when I do those private events, I don’t need to hire another person to come do a dessert for me, I can do it myself. … I love doing childhood favorites and making them all modern, or taking a really classic dessert and making it modern.”
His practice with desserts paid off in September 2011, when Meehan became the youngest competitor and first American to win the gold medal at the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Juenes Commis, an international culinary competition in Istanbul, Turkey. The competition was conducted using the “Mystery Basket” format, meaning that after the ingredients were revealed, the competitors were given 30 minutes to plan their menu. They then had three and a half hours to cook four portions of a three-course meal—using recipes they had memorized—with a 15-minute plating window for each course. For the dessert portion, Meehan made a lemon curd with an almond orange cake. One of the mandatory ingredients was figs, so he created a fig jam and sautéed some figs using a little orange juice.
While Meehan understands that not everyone has the skills to improvise a meal using surprise ingredients at a moment’s notice—his own family is primarily made up of doctors and nurses, and not a single professional chef—he says that novice chefs should make a beeline to the kitchen if they want to improve. “You can read every recipe in the world, but until you try them out, you’re not going to know what actually works,” he advises. “Find a mentor or a friend who is a good cook, and just start watching and cooking with them.”
After all, if he hadn’t done the same, Meehan would not be where he is today.
“I always tell everybody this story: The girl I knew who won the Hans Bueschkens six years ago, she went to the same school I did. And the first day I toured [The Professional Culinary Institute], they had a big plaque on the wall with her medal, a little newspaper article about her, and her picture. And I pointed it out to my mom [Gail Meehan], ‘How crazy is that? She won an international competition in Dubai—that’s nuts.’ From that day, I was always in awe of that stuff. I never thought I’d be in the same position at all, but once I started competing with the teams, I started thinking, all right, I can do this. So it’s sort of surreal … where once I was looking up at her plaque, someone else might be looking up at mine, and saying the same thing.”
For more information about Reilly Meehan, visit chefreillymeehan.com.
Try out two of Reilly Meehan’s original recipes:
Bacon Apple Jam
5 slices thick center cut bacon
1/2 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced small
1/4 Vidalia or Maui onion, diced small
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbs. honey
1/4 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
-Dice the bacon small and slowly cook in a large sauté pan until crispy. Remove bacon onto a few paper towels to soak up any excess drippings and drain the pan until only about a tablespoon of fat is left.
-In the pan with the bacon fat, sauté the apple and onion until cooked through and tender.
-Add the bacon back to the pan along with the vinegar and sugar.
-Cook this mixture until the sugars are caramelized and the jam is the consistency you like.
-For a less chunky jam, pour the hot mixture into a small food processor and blend until desired consistency is reached.
-Serve with Brussels sprouts, seared halibut, or simply spread on toast!
Duck Confit Tostada with Chipotle Crema
1 leg duck confit (found in specialty markets)
10 tostada shells
1 pint sour cream
1 can chipotle peppers
1/4 lb. arugula
1 pomegranate, seeded
Olive oil, salt and pepper to season arugula
-Pull the confit off of the bone and shred into small pieces. Heat a non-stick pan on high heat and add the heeded confit. Cook until crispy and warmed through.
-For the crema, in a small blender, combine the sour cream with the chipotles and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
-Toss the arugula with the pomegranate seeds, olive oil, salt and pepper and reserve.
-To assemble the tostada, spread a thin layer of chipotle crema on the tostada shell, then add a pile of the crispy confit, and finally top with the arugula pomegranate salad.