Campus cook participates in culinary competition

Neil LaGreca, a member of the Penn State Hazleton culinary team, recently competed in Penn State's Culinary Challenge held at University Park. The competition, similar to those on television, gave participating cooks one hour to create a unique dish using certain required ingredients. This year's ingredients each competitor needed to incorporate were Bhutanese red rice (2 cups), edamame (1 pound in the shell) and black kale (two bunches).

LaGreca finished fifth in the competition with his dish, a miso-glazed cod with kale kimchi, scallion rice cake and spiced edamame with carrots.  

"When I looked at the ingredients required, they reminded me of an Asian theme. I wanted to highlight the main ingredients while developing my recipe," he said. Competitors had to create four plates, one for each of the three judges along with a show plate. They were judged on taste, presentation, organization and food safety. Competitors were also required to bring their own ingredients and were critiqued on the amount they brought versus what was required for their recipe.

Judges were Bill Laychur, head judge, corporate executive chef for Culinary Support Services; Melissa Hendricks, registered dietitian; and John Walker, regional director for Penn State Housing and Food Services.

LaGreca competed against chefs from other Commonwealth campuses, University Park and the Bryce Jordan Center. The winner of the competition - this year, Zachary Lorber of Altoona - heads to the NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Services) regional culinary competition in March, which leads to a national competition. Last year, LaGreca tied for second with his bison flank steak.

He enjoyed the learning experience of the competition and the feedback from the judges. "I always take something away from the competition. I like seeing what the other competitors are doing and learning what I need to work on," he said.

A self-taught cook, LaGreca discovered he enjoyed cooking at an early age in the kitchen with his grandmother and mother. "They would let me help out in the kitchen and that's what really got me interested. I'm always trying to come up with creative dishes since I like being able to take different ingredients and come up with something unique. I like when a customer is really satisfied with how a dish turns out," he said.

His time in the kitchen at Penn State Hazleton began nine years ago when he was a student. He moved to the position of student manager the following year and is now a cook at Penn State Hazleton with a degree in business with the management and marketing option.

For the past two years, he has attended the Tastes of the World culinary conference at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sharpening and learning new skills through presentations and workshops led by accomplished chefs, many of whom own their own restaurants in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. LaGreca also participated in a regional American Culinary Foundation competition recently.

Jonathan Kukta, director of Housing and Food Services, said LaGreca's dish will appear on the menu at Penn State Hazleton on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

"Neil developed an interesting and unique flavor combination that we look forward to offering our students. We enjoy being able to offer fresh, delicious meals to students at Penn State Hazleton," he said. LaGreca will perform a chef demonstration from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, cooking and plating his dish for all to see.