As a chef, I get to meet some of the most interesting people, but the people I met at the Art Institute of California – Orange County Chef-a-Palooza in March were among the best. The AI culinary arts program “chopped it up” for their annual open house, with a Friday night fundraiser for the Student Veterans of America and a Saturday elimination-style competition event.

I’ve worked with a lot of high school and secondary level students, and this time, I worked side by side with veterans who ranged in age from their early 20’s to their late 40’s, all looking to begin new careers and revitalize themselves after leaving the military. It was super fun cooking with them for the SVA fundraiser – and for the most part, they did all the cooking for Friday’s dinner. I helped with tips and tricks and expediting to make sure everything went smoothly.

Dinner on Friday was a five-course meal. I planned the entrees and students designed the rest of the accompanying courses. We served around 60 people spring-inspired pan roasted lamb loin with crispy lamb sweetbreads. Students paired the lamb with creole shrimp on a polenta cake with tomato reduction, crab cake with adobo sauce, and roasted Romanesco and Brussels, red and gold beet purees and chimichurri. And because it was also the first day of Lent, we offered honey and sriracha glazed salmon over toasted grain pilaf, black sesame tahini and a burnt cauliflower puree. All followed by chocolate mousse cake.

Saturday, Art Institute students competed in the cooking challenge called Chef-a-Palooza. Student chef Cody Kachelein took the prize with an expertly cooked fish.

These events were planned to showcase the culinary program at AI. Typically, two new students will enroll following one of these events. This year, event attendance was high and a record 14 new students enrolled after participating in Chef-a-Palooza!

These guys were outstanding in their efforts and in their final products. I can’t say enough good things about the students and the Student Veterans of America, whose mission is to provide our vets with resources and advocacy they need to obtain higher education and resources to help after graduation.

What an awesome way to spend a weekend!