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Ohio State University chef wins national competition

Colleagues in Student Life Dining Services helped hone dish

“Asian-inspired pork three ways” is the dish that won David Wolf the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) 2023 Culinary Challenge. Wolf, culinary training instructor at The Ohio State University, spent the better part of six months imagining, testing and perfecting the winning recipe. 16 versions of the dish came and went by the time Wolf reached the national competition, where he beat five other chefs on July 20.

Chef David WolfWolf won the Midwest region competition before moving on to face national contestants who had also won their regions.

“That was unique, everyone in the national level having a gold medal from their region,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a blast because they’re all at a high caliber at that level.”

This was Wolf’s second trip to the national competition. His first, in 2017, resulted in a second-place finish. Winning this time felt good, he said.

“I felt like I’d finally accomplished the goal,” he said. “This has pushed me to want to be better, to be a better version of myself.”

At the heart of the challenge is a NACUFS-selected protein, which competing chefs use to create four portions of a hot entrée in 60 minutes (plus another 10 minutes for plating).  The recipes must be approved by NACUFS beforehand and changes must be submitted no later than a week before the contest. As a further challenge to contestants, they compete in makeshift kitchens with limited supplies, including induction burners as their only heat source.

Wolf’s recipe featured crispy pork belly, a wonton filled with vegetables and ground pork forcemeat, and pork tenderloin, as well as a green papaya slaw and nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce.

Wolf said his colleagues in Student Life Dining Services were an integral part of his success.

“I asked some of my colleagues to help guide me on what would best complement the dish,” he said. “Getting information from other colleagues, who have refined palates, helps make everything work together. As a team, we were able to put something together and all I had to do was make it the best I could.”

When he isn’t competing, Wolf serves as a culinary training instructor at the university. He works with the Dining Services team to educate employees about different techniques and cuisines. The bulk of this happens during the summer, during two intensive workshops. Last year, the group learned about pastry techniques and Indian food. The classes allow employees to focus their skills at a smaller level.

“We’re working with dough and fresh, whole eggs,” he said. “Dining Services usually works with liquid eggs; they’re feeding thousands of people a day.”

Employees leave with a sense of accomplishment, he said.

“They were so proud of themselves. There are six stations in the kitchen and each station makes between five and eight recipes, so all the food comes up on a big buffet,” he said. “They’re always like, ‘Wow! Look at what everyone did.’ That blows their hair back.”

This commitment to learning and practicing is what sets Dining Services at Ohio State apart, Wolf said. The staff can offer a wide array of foods, campus-wide.

“The variety of food we have is jaw-dropping. You can go to a dining facility for 21 days and never eat the same thing twice,” he said. “I think that’s neat. We want students to know we care about what they eat.”

Wolf is certain that a full belly leads to better academic performance. And food can help combat something many students face: homesickness.

“There are a lot of international students here. They have their favorites, too,” he said. “We work with them to get the flavors they want and make it as close to home as possible. That’s important.”

This is Wolf’s last year of full-time work. But retirement won’t be sitting around watching TV, he said. He plans on continuing to teach, just on a part-time basis.

“I’ve got a lot more to give.”   

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