The Taste Chase goes to college

MCCC Professor and Chef Instructor Frank Benowitz poses with scholarship winners at the 6th Annual tasting event

The Taste Chase was out and about last week as students, alumni supporters, local restaurateurs, and vendors gathered for the 6th annual Mercer County College (MCCC) culinary tasting event. The MCCC cafeteria was transformed into a veritable smorgasbord of gastronomic indulgence, and boy, did we indulge!

The MCCC culinary arts track, a division of the Hospitality, Restaurant and Institution Management (HRIM) program, offers several associate degree opportunities as well as certificate and continuing education programs to Mercer County students. The tasting event is an annual celebration of this thriving culinary arts program, a showcase for some of their most talented student chefs, as well as the venue for the presentation of a scholarship endowed several years ago to memorialize two former instructors.

One of the many offerings at MCCC’s annual tasting event

Food stations lined the room featuring students’ tasty original creations along with some classic dishes. The chefs-in-training vied for the attention of attendees with such tempting dishes as “Olive Oyl fried chicken sliders and scallion waffle with mushroom ragu.” Meanwhile, established restaurants, many of whom employ graduates of the culinary program, also beckoned hungry patrons. Ravello by Toscano presented “butternut squash ravioli with torn buffalo mozzarella and crumbled ameretti in a brown butter sage sauce” and Stone Terrace offered “lobster mac ‘n cheese and boxer salad,” to name a few. Hopewell’s own Rory Phillipson was slinging one of my favorites from her restaurant, The Blue Bottle, “braised duck and sweet potato tart with herb goat cheese and pumpkin seed vinaigrette.” She was non-stop plating these delectables as a steady stream of people queued. Clearly, I was not the only fan.

As people milled around, eyeing the growing spread of desserts popping up all around the room, I found myself making a beeline for the bananas foster. “This is a classic, one of the good ones,” stated Chef Cameron Carr as he swirled a hot, bubbling mixture of bananas, butter, brown sugar, and rum. He had me at the rum. 

Chef Cameron Carr prepares bananas foster

Joanne Canady-Brown, of Lawrenceville’s The Gingered Peach, showed her support for the program by presenting an olive oil cake with a mulled-wine reduction and pumpkin cupcakes, while MCCC 1 presented two varieties of madeleines, a lemon and a seasonal pumpkin ginger. 

In the midst of all the bustling of hungry diners, the crowd was greeted by Professor and Chef Instructor Frank Benowitz who, along with Professor/Chef Doug Fee (Coordinator HRIM) leads the MCCC culinary program. Benowitz acknowledged the hard work and passion of the students and alumni who have made the program successful. He also reminded everyone that the event was more than just an opportunity to sample the fruits of the labor of both students and teachers. At the event, the “Chef Anne Lumberger and Chef Shari Widmayer Pastry Arts Memorial Scholarship” was presented to memorialize two chef instructors whose contributions helped make the culinary program what it is today.

“I wanted their names to live on. They were instrumental for me as friends as well as colleagues,” Benowitz explained when asked about his impetus for initiating a scholarship fund. “The first year we did this, we created an endowment fund, thanks to all the generous support. Each year, we were able to contribute more and now we are contributing so much that we actually gave three awards this year instead of just one.”

Julie Maroney Cortese won the top scholarship of $1,000 for her winning pastry, an autumn tart of her own design. The two $500 winners were Katherine Marroquin, for her “flan de gucoy” and Jessica Clark, who presented a gooey apple butter cake with salted caramel ice cream. Each student smiled wide when what was left of their pastries were gobbled up by those who were still able to move.

Pumpkin cupcakes with toasted pecan buttercream from the Gingered Peach

In addition to the edibles, tables were set up for a silent auction and “tricky tray” items available for diners to bid on. All proceeds from the event contribute to the scholarship fund. Among the items available to bid on were various gift certificates for overnight weekend getaways at the Princeton Hyatt, Princeton Westin and the Nassau Inn. There were also several gift basket samplers from vendors including Small World Cafe, Jersey Girl Cafe, Jammin’ Crepes, and a tasting tour from Triumph Brewing Company. 

What was really encouraging about this event is the professionalism of the student presentations and the pride with which the entrees were presented. 

When asked about the program, Benowitz beamed, “I was a student in this program many, many years ago and worked in hotels and restaurants. Money wasn’t there so I went into the corporate side of things,” he said. “Then a position became available as a culinary instructor and I took it. That was 16 years ago. I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted it.”  

As the culinary arts program has grown, Benowitz wants people to understand that not only is this program valuable but it is a value. “You have places like CIA (Culinary Institute of America), which is a tremendous culinary school. We are are no CIA, yet we are a better value than CIA because of the fact that we offer students, when they graduate from here, jobs. We have more jobs than students. So, they are all getting employment and the same type of employment as a graduate from any other culinary school,” he explained.

Looking to the future, Benowitz stated that the program has more than doubled since he first came to MCCC, and it also has increased from one kitchen to three. 

Professor and Chef Instructor Frank Benowitz and MCCC President Dr. Janping Wang

“We are bringing in as much of this new equipment (blast chillers, anti-griddles, ect.) as any of these top schools would have, along with instructors with tremendous knowledge and experience, to prepare these students for the careers in this industry. Not just culinary and pastry but hospitality as well,” he explained. 

There should be no question that the Culinary Arts Program at Mercer County Community College has positioned itself to be the premier destination for anyone looking to enter the hospitality industry. With a growing program and dedicated chef instructors, as well as eager employers anxious to hire talented and passionate chefs, the dining landscape of the Central Jersey area is poised to become a dining destination for an increasingly diverse population. 

If you are interested in the Culinary Arts Program or the Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management Program, email: or call:  609-586-4900. 

Mercer County Community College – West Windsor Campus 1200 Old Trenton Rd., West Windsor, NJ 08550

Mercer County Community College – 102 North Broad Street, Trenton, NJ 08550

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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