Chef Chat

From Rice to Potatoes: How to Switch Gears and Become a Cooking Contest Winner

Okay, so William "Trey" Smith went to Rice University, where he graduated in 2006 with a degree in economics. Following a not-unexpected career path, he enrolled in law school at the University of Oklahoma.

Along the way, however, he found he liked his avocation better than his planned life's work. The son and grandson of accomplished cooks (his grandmother Vita Espinosa introduced him to Santa Fe flavors) and a cook himself since childhood (his mother taught him to cook because she didn't always have time to make him his favorite dishes), he started working for a chef during his first summer of law school.

"It just felt right," he says. So he contacted the Culinary Institute of America, which offered him a scholarship if he came right away. He jumped ship and landed in New York City -- which is where he spoke to Eating...Our Words in a telephone interview.

Turns out the Houston native has just been declared the winner of the Ethnic category and overall Grand Prize winner in (and we are not making this up) "The Potato Innovation Recipe Contest" sponsored by the (not making this up either) the U.S. Potato Board, for his "Cheesy Southwestern Potato Crisps."

And the story gets even better.

Eating...Our Words: So how did you happen to enter this contest?

Smith: I was walking down the hall and I saw a yellow flyer and I picked it up. I thought to myself, I can come up with a potato dish that people would like to make. The deadline was two hours after I'd seen the flyer. I sat down and wrote the recipe in 45 minutes. I bought some colored pencils at the bookstore. I didn't have time to actually make the dish. I had made similar dishes in the past. So I knew how it would look and how it would turn out. I quickly drew a little sketch so they would know what I was talking about, and I turned it in. And I didn't hear anything for months and had kind of forgotten about it, and then I ended up getting a call out of the blue and it was a win for the contest.

EOW: So when did you actually make the dish for the first time?

Smith: Well, I guess technically, I've never made the dish.

EOW: Really?

Smith: Not in this specific [instance]. The dish itself is a potato galette, which is classic French preparation, the actual potato part of the dish. I've made that many times. But to actually fill it with what I've put in it, I've never actually done it.

So there you have it. Trey Smith wins a national contest -- he got $2,500 in prize money which he hopes to use to move back to Houston and work for a restaurant here after he graduates in early November -- for a recipe he never actually cooked or tasted himself.

There's a reason Rice is known for turning out really smart grads.

Anyhow, the U.S. Potato Board made the dish and thought it was the best of the best among its other recipes.

Here's Trey Smith's recipe:

Cheesy Southwestern Potato Crisps

Servings: 2 to 4

  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1/2 jalapeño pepper, most of seeds and ribs removed
  • 4 ounces cilantro leaves, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon roasted shelled pistachios
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
  • 2 medium russet potatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • Cilantro leaves and lemon wedges, for garnish

To make Southwestern pesto, in a food processor, pulse garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, pistachios. lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt until roughly chopped. With food processor running, slowly add 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil.

Peel potatoes and put in a bowl with enough water to cover. Heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Julienne one of the potatoes. (Julienne as needed; do not hold in water or potato will lose too much starch and fail to adhere during cooking process.) Sprinkle half the julienned potato into the pan, sprinkling in different directions to form a web-like galette covering the entire bottom of the pan in a single layer. Cook until bottom is golden brown; flip and cook until golden brown on second side, adding more vegetable oil to pan if galette is cooking unevenly. Transfer to paper towels; season with salt, pepper and cumin. Repeat with remaining julienned potato to make another galette. Julienne second potato and repeat process to make 4 galettes.

Spread Southwestern pesto onto one side of each galette. Cover two of the galettes with cheese sprinkle with onion and cover with another galette, pesto side down. Place on a baking sheet and bake in 300°F oven 10-15 minutes or until cheese is melted. Cut each galette into quarters, transfer to plates and garnish with cilantro and lemon wedges. Serve 2 quarters as a side dish or 4 quarters as a main course.

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