As a long pole midfielder on the Johnson & Wales University men's lacrosse team, junior Owen Macca is determined to beat his opponent to every ground ball. That same competitiveness fuels him in the kitchen, and this winter he took his culinary skills to the international stage.
This fall, Macca was approached by JWU associate professor chef Ray McCue about representing Johnson & Wales, and the United States, at the Young Chef Olympiad in India, January 28 to February 2. It didn't take the West Hartford native log to say, "Yes" and begin his journey.
"Dean Delle Donne and myself had asked several faculty and Owen's name came up several times," McCue said. "He seemed to stand out in the new bachelor program in culinary arts."
Hosted by the International Institute of Hotel Management, the Young Chef Olympiad is an international culinary competition that brings culinary students from 50 different countries into one location. The chefs are judged on everything from the quality of their dishes to presentation and cooking techniques.
Prior to the event, each chef was given two specific dishes to make in the first round—Eggs Florentine and a lemon soufflé. The second round had to be a three-course vegetarian/vegan meal with the chefs using their imagination to create the meal.
Even though the competition wasn't until January, Macca spent nearly every weekend with McCue in the JWU culinary labs working on everything from how the dishes tasted to the cleanliness of his workstation. Before practice, Macca would tape off the workstation to simulate the size of the workstation he would have during the competition.
Johnson & Wales chefs have a history of success during international competitions. Numerous alumni have won competitions on the Food Network, including a former student-athlete. Last year baseball alumni Jordan Pilarski '16 won the Spring Baking Challenge. While Macca wasn't able to talk to the Food Network competitors, McCue brought in several chefs who were able to give Macca advice, including Geoffrey Lanez, a chef on the National American Culinary Team USA for the American Culinary Federation.
"Owen was able to refine his thought process about different cooking and gain a flair for creativity and problem-solving," McCue said "The training and degree of execution Owen received included foundational skills, presentation, creativity, nutrition, workmanship and all other fundamental abilities that he can apply every day to his career as a chef."
A love of fried eggs is how Macca got his start in the kitchen. His mother Marcia made him fried eggs on the weekend, but couldn't during the week because of her work schedule. Macca asked his mother to show him how to make fried eggs, which led to scrambled eggs, omelets and much more.
When he was old enough to work, Macca's home economics teacher, Mrs. Brand, noticed his love of cooking and got him a job in a local West Hartford Italian restaurant. He started making salads, desserts and antipasti plates. When the chef at Risotto's went to a new restaurant, he took Macca with him. By manning the pantry station at Grant's Restaurant where he made hot and cold appetizers as well as desserts, Macca's experience gave him an edge when he came into the JWU culinary program.
Cooking classes in Macca's freshman year of high school solidified the notion that this is what he wanted to do for a living. Like most high school students who want to be a chef, Macca's post-secondary choices came down to Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America. After a visit to the Providence campus, Macca's choice was easy.
"There's no shot of me being able to be a part of this competition if I wasn't at a D3 school," Macca noted. "I took my tour of Johnson & Wales before the Culinary Institute and seeing that they had a lacrosse team swung me right away because I knew I would be able to excel at a great culinary school and keep playing sports.
Unrecruited out of high school, playing lacrosse wasn't initially in the picture for Macca. He discovered the Wildcat lacrosse program on his own and decided to try out for head coach Nick Coppola's third-year program. As a freshman, he played in 20 games and scored eight goals. Last season he started 17 of the 19 games and was third on the team with 53 ground balls.
Employers like hiring student-athletes for many reasons, especially their time management skills. Macca was the definition of time management in January as lacrosse practice was in full swing as was his final competition preparation to go along with a full complement of classes.
"Owen went above and beyond," McCue said. "Between classes, practices and his personal life, he stuck through it and I feel it made him a better chef. He was able to display professionalism and be a great ambassador for Johnson & Wales University."
Prior to the trip to India, Macca had never been outside the United States so the 14-hour flight to Qatar and connecting flight to New Delhi was quite the experience. Macca and McCue were warmly welcomed to New Delhi by the IIHM staff, including the traditional Indian flower garland. The day prior to the competition, Macca was able to explore parts of New Delhi, taking in the local markets and culture.
On day two it was time to get down to business. Macca shared a hotel room with a competitor from New Zealand and another from Spain. His New Zealand counterpart had to fly to Bangalore for his first round while Macca got to stay in New Delhi where the competition was held on the IHM campus.
Upon arrival, contestants had five minutes to prep their area then two hours to cook and plate the Eggs Florentine and lemon soufflé. Each chef had a three-burner induction stove and a convection oven that was a glorified toaster oven. With more than a decade worth of experience since his first fried egg, Macca was confident in his Eggs Florentine. The lemon soufflé, on the other hand, wasn't his strongest dish. "They had a giant clock up on the wall and I just remember the two hours went like (snap) that," Macca added. "It was literally like the shows on the Food Network. I put my last thing on the plate with one second left."
Almost immediately after round one was completed, the chefs were on a plane bound for Kolkata and the second round. The next morning, cooking stations were set up in the hotel with the same intensity as the first round. Macca said he was pleased with his dishes, which had a fine-casual dining theme.
While the Young Chef Olympiad didn't go as Macca hoped, he didn't have time to hang his head when he got back to Providence because the start of the lacrosse season was just around the corner. The Wildcats had their first scrimmage on February 14 then their regular season opener 10 days later.
Currently Macca is second on the team, 10th in the league, with 28 ground balls. JWU opened Great Northeast Athletic Conference play with a win over Anna Maria and has its sights set on the first GNAC championship game in program history.
"I believe this was an excellent for Owen," JWU head coach Nick Coppola said. "Anytime one of my athletes has an opportunity to travel abroad, I am going to be all for it. Owen was not only able to travel across the globe, he was able to do it while competing and representing both Johnson & Wales University as well as the country.
"As a competitor on the lacrosse field, I know it was hard for him to leave his teammates right at the beginning of our season, but the entire team was behind him and supported him while he was away."
Johnson & Wales has one of the top scoring teams in the region, but the defense has not performed as well in the past. As one of the leaders on the defense, Macca has taken it upon himself to make the defense a tighter unit that wants to work together with Defense Dinners at his apartment on Federal Hill. The first two "D Dinners" have been pasta and taco nights with more to come throughout the season.
Even though he still has another year before he completes his bachelor's degree in culinary arts, Macca already knows what he wants the future to hold for him. He hopes to travel after graduation with the ultimate goal of working for chef Thomas Keller at the famed The French Laundry in California.