No longer swimming under the radar

Special to The Robbinsville Sun Mercer County Community College chef-instructor Frank Benowitz (right) and his sous chef Dave Aust, both of Robbinsville, earned second place in the 2013 New Jersey Seafood Challenge for the golden tilefish with blueberry and peach salsa.

Special to The Robbinsville Sun
Mercer County Community College chef-instructor Frank Benowitz (right) and his sous chef Dave Aust, both of Robbinsville, earned second place in the 2013 New Jersey Seafood Challenge for the golden tilefish with blueberry and peach salsa.

The Robbinsville chef who won second-place in the NJ Seafood Challenge at Drumthwacket has helped shine a spotlight on an unsung fish and a local college culinary arts program that he says are among the state’s best kept secrets.

Frank Benowitz, chef/instructor at Mercer County Community College, and his sous chef Dave Aust, prepared a Golden Tilefish with Blueberry & Peach Salsa for the competition held June 20 at the governor’s mansion that drew rave reviews.

“It’s great New Jersey fish that people don’t realize is available,” Benowitz said in an interview on June 24.  He described the flavor of tilefish, which he gets from Viking Seafood Market in Barnegat Light, as well as Wegmans when it’s available, as a cross between lobster and crab, but with the texture of a fish like halibut or salmon.

Benowitz, who has earned the First Place People’s Choice Salsa Award for several years in a row at the annual NJ State Chili and Salsa Championship, used organic Jersey blueberries and peaches, cilantro and tomatoes for the salsa.

“I did a blueberry peach salsa and I did a blueberry tomato and cilantro gastrique with it,” Benowitz said. “Gastrique is essentially cooked vinegar with sugar and I actually encompassed some blueberry Tomasello wine with it. It turned out very nice and we were very pleased with it.”

The five other chefs in the competition offered their own Jersey seafood dishes, including scallops, mackerel and sea bass, but it was another tilefish dish prepared by Christopher Albrecht, of Eno Terra restaurant in Kingston, that took first place. Albrecht and his sous chef John Crawford Koeniger, who made their signature dish with green vegetable chowder, will be New Jersey’s official representatives to the Great American Seafood Cook-off next month in New Orleans.

Benowitz said he thought it was great that Albrecht would be giving New Jersey’s tilefish national exposure at the New Orleans event, which will be televised by the Food Network.

Although Albrecht’s tilefish dish is completely pan-seared and delicious, Benowitz says his own dish was done sous vide, cooking it inside a sealed bag in a water bath to preserve the fish’s texture and only pan-searing it at the end for a bit of color.

“You use a piece of equipment called a thermal circulator,” Benowitz explained. “It’s one of the techniques demonstrated at Mercer County Community College for culinary students.”

The MCCC culinary program has grown steadily from 32 students in the 1990s to 265 students today, said Benowitz, who like his sous chef Aust lives in the Foxmoor section of Robbinsville. Benowitz notes the student-run MCCC restaurants serve delicious meals often found in high-end restaurants, but at a fraction of the price.

“For $12, you can have an appetizer, entrée and dessert from one of our restaurant classes,” Benowitz said.

The restaurants are part of MCCC’s Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management program and like New Jersey’s golden tilefish, these restaurants are one the area’s best-kept secrets, he said.

“A lot of people in the community and in Mercer County don’t even realize we have a hotel and restaurant culinary program here,” Benowitz said. “Lots of restaurants in the area call for our students for employment opportunities because the program is continuing to get such positive feedback for the (student-run) restaurants.”

Lunches and dinners are served on whatever days classes meet, which varies by semester. More information about the restaurant menus and seating times can be found on the college’s website at www.mccc.edu/hrim. Click on the “What’s New“ tab on the left side of the page.

 

 


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