TAMPA — Cue the Frank Sinatra. Kirsten Jo Mathers, a 27-year-old culinary student from the Art Institute of Tampa, hopped on a plane Tuesday and headed to New York City for the first time to cook a New Year's Eve dinner for big-city gourmands at the fabled James Beard House. The sole representative from Tampa, she joins a team of chefs from the Art Institutes system of schools to fashion a 10-course meal for a discerning audience paying $250 a pop.
For 10 years, the Art Institutes, with more than 50 schools in North America, has partnered with the James Beard House to create a festive celebration of food for culinary enthusiasts, alternating annually between preparing dinners on New Year's Eve and Thanksgiving. This year, a small group of Art Institutes chefs include heavy-hitters like national culinary director David Hendricksen, but Mathers is the only student.
According to chef Clyde Tanner, academic director for culinary at the Art Institute of Tampa, she has what it takes.
"It was an open invitation for those who wanted to get involved. But Kirsten was one that I actually hand picked. She really has an affinity for cooking. We throw new recipes at them every day and Kirsten just knows how to nail it every time with her flavor profiles. She's a workhorse and so creative."
For Mathers, a Minnesota native who will graduate in March, the essential quality for culinary students to have is "an open and willing attitude to learn." She began two long days of prep at 7:30 a.m. Foie gras ice cream, braised short ribs with blueberry sauce and shaved truffles, consomme with a ravioli with white truffles, New York strip loin roulade, Nantucket oysters wrapped in tenderloin with a roasted red pepper mignonette — heavy lifting for a rookie chef.
She says she'd like to work on the consomme course because it requires techniques that she'd like to practice, but, as is her mantra at the Art Institute, she will say "yes, chef" to whatever she's assigned.
Tanner says Mathers will represent the Tampa school as the "cream of the crop." But he may have a more subtle motive.
"We're going to get her some great externships. And then get her back here to Tampa so we can get some better food around here."
As in the song, if she can make it in New York, she can make it anywhere, but if Chef Tanner is ordering her back to Tampa after refining her skills elsewhere, there's only one answer:
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.