Big flavors and big plans from the winner of the 2018 S&D Culinary Challenge: Sarah Rountree

Sometimes a decision pays off in ways you can’t foresee.

For Sarah Rountree, a Johnson & Wales Charlotte senior from Newport, CT, the decision to enter the 2018 S&D Culinary Challenge led to top honors and the $10,000 grand prize.

Although it was her first time in this ― or any ― culinary competition, Sarah truly impressed the judges with her recipe for Cold Brew Coffee & Ancho Chile Braised Short Ribs with coffee-infused carrots and onions on creamy, cheesy grits.

According to Sarah, who has had a passion for cooking for as long as she can remember and was influenced by her uncle who owned a restaurant, a lot of things went into creating this dish.

She drew inspiration from her time studying abroad in Paris last summer, learning French cuisine at the Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse where she focused on fine dining techniques found at Michelin-starred restaurants.

Sarah used these techniques in braising the short ribs and glazing the carrots and onions and paired them with Southern-influenced components, like grits, to accomplish this year’s theme ““Show your Foodways with a Cold Brew Twist.”

The overlap between French and Southern cooking styles was found in one key recipe ingredient, butter, which was used to balance the strong ancho chile and coffee flavors in the braising liquid. The creamy, cheesy grits balanced these flavors as well and added a soft mouthfeel. Finally, the dish was topped with a light herb salad to add acidity and cut through the fat and parsnip chips for crunch.

The result was a well-balanced dish that Sarah’s mentor in the competition ― Luca Annunziata, Chef and Owner of Luca’s Modern Italian Kitchen ― felt had a chance to win the $10,000 prize from the very beginning of their mentorship. “She had it down — technique, presentation, good flavor, balance ― and the passion behind her recipe and a good energy,” he commented.

After enjoying a great meal or two at Michelin-starred restaurants as a reward, Sarah plans to put the remaining money toward her schooling ― and maybe a new piece of equipment.

“This competition was the first time I really used a pressure cooker. It’s really useful tool in the kitchen, so I do now want to purchase a pressure cooker!” she remarked.

For serving as the mentor of the winning student chef, Luca also earned $2,500 for his chosen charity: Piedmont Culinary Guild.

Reflecting on the competition, Sarah took away more than just the top prize.

She really enjoyed being able to work with the other contestants ― “everyone is so talented and brings something different to the table and I really just enjoyed seeing what they did and getting to know them.”

The competition also taught her how to compose a dish, “which chefs have to do every day, thinking about the balance of textures and flavors ― plus how to cook under the pressure of a time crunch,” she added.

Lastly, she felt the competition was very validating: “it showed me that what I’m doing is working, which is a confidence booster before I graduate and go out into the industry.”

So, what’s next for Sarah?

Learning remains a priority because she feels that “in this industry, you can never stop learning.” She has a goal of becoming an executive chef or running a kitchen ― preferably at a Michelin-starred restaurant working under a strong female chef that she can be mentored by and that represents the best of the industry.

Does she have someone in mind?

Yes, Dominique Crenn, the French chef best known for earning two Michelin stars for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco. To Sarah, she is a great role model and representation of what a female chef should be.

Following the restaurant-focused stage in her career, Sarah hopes to go into a teaching role, giving back to the industry and providing the next generation of student chefs the same great instruction she received at Johnson & Wales Charlotte.

We’re sure her name will be on a few more lists of winners in the future, and we look forward to following her career. Congrats, Sarah!

To learn more about the S&D Culinary Challenge, visit the S&D Facebook page or read the announcements from the 2018 competition:

S&D Coffee & Tea Hosts 8th Annual Student Recipe Challenge

S&D Coffee & Tea Announces 2018 S&D Culinary Challenge Finalists

S&D Coffee & Tea names Sarah Rountree as winner of the 2018 S&D Culinary Challenge