When Hotel Roanoke lead cook Michael Whitaker faced off against six other competitors at the 2018 Al Pollard Memorial Gala, he naturally felt a bit nervous. At the end of the night, however, his notable kitchen skills earned him a full scholarship to the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program at Virginia Western Community College.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Whitaker said. “The competition itself was really exhilarating.”
Whitaker was one of seven area culinarians to take home scholarship prizes during the 13th annual Al Pollard Gala, which was held Sept. 22 at the newly expanded Claude Moore Educational Complex. The 29-year-old cook was awarded an $8,000 scholarship that will cover tuition for a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree at Virginia Western’s nationally accredited culinary school. He’ll begin his instruction in spring 2019.
The other six competitors were each awarded scholarships worth $4,000, which will cover one year of instruction and awards a career studies certificate upon completion. Some have already started their instruction, while others will begin next year.
“You could only walk out a winner, you know,” Whitaker said. “It was very exciting.”
Now in its 13th year, the Al Pollard Gala and Golf Tournament has always included a cooking competition, along with delicious dishes meant to delight attending patrons. This year’s competition, however, was the first to be sanctioned by the American Culinary Foundation and award scholarships through the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation. The gala was also hosted at the culinary program’s new facilities, which include more than 8,000 square feet of state-of-the-art kitchen and academic space.
John Schopp, an faculty chef at Virginia Western’s Al Pollard Culinary Program, said this year’s competition targeted cooks who were already employed in Roanoke’s fine dining institutions but had not attended culinary school previously.
Program instructors and area restaurant owners hope that the competition and subsequent schooling will help participants develop kitchen and management skills, as well as further improve hospitality in the Roanoke dining scene. Competitors were sponsored by several notable local institutions, including The Palisades, 419 West and Fortunato.
“By getting those new seven culinarians into these properties, we’re hoping they’re going to set an example,” Schopp said. “The line cooks to the left and right of them are going to look at them and go, ‘Man, you look a little bit neater. I notice you’re wearing a chef coat and not a dirty T-shirt. I notice you got the good schedule, you got a little bit of a raise. I want to do that.'”
CJ King, a board member of the Al Pollard Memorial Foundation, said the scholarships awarded at this year’s competition honored Pollard’s desire to see Roanoke’s downtown scene grow and thrive. Pollard, a talented restaurateur who founded Corned Beef & Co., is often credited with revitalizing downtown Roanoke by introducing an entertaining dining experience, King said. Before he died in 2006, he was ecstatic to hear that a culinary school was coming to the area.
“When the culinary school started, we thought that would be the perfect place for the money we were raising in his honor,” he said. “So far, we’ve raised and given over $500,000 to the culinary school in the form of scholarships and other needs they may have.”
As the recipient of the $8,000 scholarship, Whitaker will be able to choose between two instruction tracks — one that focuses on more savory dishes and one that emphasizes baking and pastries. The other participants will receive a rounded, one-year education that will further cement their skills in the kitchen and introduce them to cooking concepts that they may not have already learned.
By choosing recipients who are already working in restaurants, Schopp said that incoming students will be able to learn new techniques while also putting their skills into practice. That marriage of further training and real-life experience will lead to better employees for restaurants in the Roanoke Valley, he said.
“Our craft is complete muscle memory,” Schopp said. “It’s being able to work in chaos, multi-task, be dynamic and flexible.”
Performing well in this year’s competition required that same ability to combine skill and knowledge in a high-stress environment. Although he faced fierce competition during the event, Whitaker said the abilities he’s gained throughout his career allowed him to perform calmly under pressure.
“Obviously, all the competitors themselves were of merit. They represented the best restaurants downtown,” Whitaker said. “But once the competition kicked off and everything was full swing around cooking, that was just another day at work, really.”
During the event, contestants were given an hour to break down a whole chicken, as well as prepare a starch, vegetable and complimentary sauce. The chefs then had to present four identical dishes to experienced judges. Whitaker said his winning plate was comprised of pistachio-encrusted chicken, which was stuffed with black garlic and brandy-infused liver mousse.
“I decided for my butchering method to do a ballotine, which is a little bit different than your standard breakdown of a chicken, leaving pretty much the entirety of the carcass intact, yet with all the bones out,” Whitaker said.
Since each participant was awarded at least a year of schooling, instructors hope that those cooks will form bonds with each other that will lead to future innovations in the downtown dining scene. Virginia Western’s ability to foster those potential friendships, as well as its mission to enhance Roanoke’s restaurants, would be impossible without the support of the Al Pollard Memorial Foundation, Schopp said.
“The short mission is changing people’s lives,” he said. “The bigger picture is raising the level of professionalism and hospitality in the entire service region.”