UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Athan Spanos, executive chef at Penn State Harrisburg, represented Penn State and took the top American Culinary Federation (ACF) award for his signature dish at the National Culinary Challenge in Denver, Colorado.
The challenge, which took place during the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) National Conference, featured competitors from six schools.
Spanos advanced to the national challenge after winning the annual Penn State Culinary Challenge last October and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference Culinary Challenge, held in January in Gettysburg.
Competitors in the national challenge face off against the clock, and before a live audience of college and university food service professionals, industry experts and ACF judges, to create an appetizing and inviting plate.
The live competition, according to NACUFS, “recognizes outstanding organization, cooking skills, culinary technique, taste, and style.”
Each culinary challenge features a mandatory protein ingredient that is determined and provided by NACUFS. This year, the mandatory protein was 12- to 14-pound bone-in venison saddle.
Spanos prepared a dish featuring a juniper and fennel crusted venison chop, delicata squash and trumpet royale mushroom hash, sunchoke ravioli truffle parmesan foam, root vegetable chip, and a sour cherry reduction.
“I was excited to design my dish once I heard what the protein was going to be,” Spanos said. “I enjoy combining different flavors, textures and plate designs to compose a well-balanced and beautiful dish. It was my goal to push myself to make this dish just difficult enough so I could finish on time and still have a clean, organized station and plate.”
Spanos excelled throughout the challenge in many ways, according to the panel of judges. Despite drawing the straw to go last in the competition, he kept his cool and was meticulous about station cleanliness throughout setup, production, cooking, plating and completion. Judges commented that his completed dish, which required perfect timing for all components to come together — including perfectly crisp vegetable root chips in the final minutes — reflected a true fine-dining experience.
“We are beyond proud of Chef Athan and his accomplishments,” said Mark Kowalski, corporate executive chef at Penn State's University Park campus. “He put in the time and hard work with many practice rounds to perfect his dish for this event, and it showed in the end. We are lucky to have him as part of our team.”
Spanos advanced to the national level last year as well, “but I had to withdraw because my son Ilias was born on the very day of the competition, July 11,” Spanos said. “So, this year it was very special for me to represent Penn State at the national level.”
“We extend our warmest congratulations to Chef Athan,” said John Papazoglou, associate vice president for Penn State Auxiliary and Business Services. “This award is a huge recognition for him, for Penn State Harrisburg, and for Penn State’s entire culinary program.”
“Chef Athan's national recognition in higher education food service is well deserved,” added Cheryl Fabrizi, assistant vice president for Penn State Housing and Food Services. “His commitment to attaining such culinary skill reflects Penn State's overall commitment, focus and support of our talented and skilled culinary team that delivers great food every day, every meal, to our students.”