Virginia Western Community College hosted the national Culinary Team USA on Nov. 6 and 7, as team members continued to fine-tune their techniques before competing in February 2024 at the IKA Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany. Chef Ted Polfelt, a faculty member in the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program at Virginia Western, had received the honor of being named to the team for the four-year cycle leading up to February’s global competition.
Team members prepared a three-course meal for 110 dinner attendees on both days, mirroring the tight time requirements and rules that will govern the Olympics in Germany. In Roanoke, the dinner was served to students and pre-selected guests. The menu consisted of a seafood appetizer, entrée and dessert.
This particular team, sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, has prepared for the Olympics with practices held around the country, including at Virginia Western in early 2022. Rehearsals took place at the Claude Moore Education Complex on Henry Street in downtown Roanoke.
“We are proud to host Team USA’s chefs as they are in the homestretch of prepping for the Olympics,” said Yvonne Campbell, dean of Virginia Western’s School of Business, Technology and Trades. “We’re very appreciative of their willingness to bring students into this process, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many students to see this level of culinary expertise.”
In addition to Chef Polfelt, team members in Roanoke for the event were team captain Dan Holtgrave, Jim Storm, Logan Christensen, Tim Recher, Troman Felizmenio, team apprentice Shane Wilder, team manager Kevin Storm, assistant team manager Randy Torres, pastry manager Susan Notter, and team advisors John Coletta and Steven Jilleba, all of whom are volunteers.
Team USA previously competed at the Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup, also held once every four years, in Luxembourg in November 2022.
Approximately 1,800 participants from 67 nations are slated to take part in the 2024 Culinary Olympics from Feb. 2 through 7, with 8,000 menus cooked and 100,00 visitors from around the world. As supporters to Chef Polfelt, Virginia Western will send Chef John Schopp, program head Chef James Zeisler, and a couple of students to observe, with funding assistance provided by the Al Pollard Foundation.
For those who can’t travel to Germany, the Olympic team’s event in Roanoke gave students a chance to learn elite culinary techniques. The practices are part of the effort to build up the next generation of chefs.
“I’m grateful that our students have the chance to see the intensity of this experience and learn from what our team is doing,” said Chef Polfelt. “The Olympics are so close now, and a practice like this is critical to our coordination and planning. It’s great to have Virginia Western host us at this stage of the game, and for our students to benefit at the same time.”
Lisa Anthony and Hannah Martin are Virginia Western students and work together at Center Stage Catering. As pastry chefs who are preparing for their own ACF certification exams, they kept a close eye on how the chefs set up their work area. “We’re mentally preparing ourselves for that,” Martin said. “They’re being judged right now by their team managers, so they’re constantly being monitored, questioned, critiqued, and that’s something we’re going to have to deal with next Saturday.”
Both watched intently through the window of an adjacent kitchen as Chefs Polfelt and Felizmenio worked. The students noted the high level of cleanliness Team USA’s chefs maintain. Team chefs constantly cleaned workstations and maintained crisp white uniforms through the afternoon and evening. “They’re really clean, really organized,” Anthony said.
The chefs exuded calm through the six-hour preparation and additional hours of serving, working in finely tuned roles. Team managers and advisors consulted with team members at points throughout the rehearsal time. “We have a fair idea of how they would be judged,” and the chefs try to correct any issues right away, said Chef Torres, who noted there would be a debriefing at the end of each rehearsal night. “As they practice, the window gets smaller” for what they need to address.
The competition will have two parts, Chef Notter explained to dining guests. The Roanoke event prepared for the Restaurant of Nations component, with three-course service for 110 people. Some of the previous rehearsals nationwide prepared for the Chef’s Table portion, which includes personal service of more courses by team members for 14 guests and 14 judges, as well as a culinary showpiece.
Anthony has helped Chef Polfelt measure and prepare ingredients for rehearsals around the country. She was a team supporter at the World Cup in Luxembourg and will be traveling to the Culinary Olympics in Germany. She enjoyed seeing the types of dishes the team prepared. “In this area, you don’t have a lot of opportunity to see high-end dishes like this, especially pastry-wise,” she said.
The elevated experience goes beyond visual appeal. “Once you get to taste the food, it’s so delicious,” Anthony said. For the desserts, “I hadn’t tasted some of these flavors before, and when I did, it was, whoa, what is this in my mouth?” Diners at the dinner made similar observations, experiencing flavor combinations and components paired in elevated ways.
Sponsors and volunteers for this week’s rehearsal included U.S. Foods, PFG Foods, Cavalier Produce, Roanoke Fruit and Produce, Hotel Roanoke, Southwestern Virginia chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Brandon Oaks, Center Stage Catering, Affinity Group, Al Pollard Culinary Program at Virginia Western, Brady Allman, Cheney Brothers and Jones Dairy Farms.
Virginia Western alumna Darla Mehrkens, director of dining at Brandon Oaks and treasurer of the ACF Southwestern Virginia chapter, was one of the dinner guests. She had also attended the rehearsal in early 2022, and said her favorite part of this dinner was reflecting on that journey. “For me, it’s seeing how they’ve progressed from two years ago,” she said, “to what they’ll be competing with.”