Greg "Chocolate Man" D'Alesandre (left) and Joel Firehammer with their winning dishes.
Firehammer, a graduate student in electrical engineering with a passion for Mexican cuisine, spends his days in Barus and Holley doing research on a laser-powered video projection device that he hopes will some day replace film projectors in movie theaters. D'Alesandre - "the chocolate man" to some of his friends - is lead programmer and computer-systems administrator at Spectra Science, which uses technology developed by Professor of Engineering and Physics Nabil Lawandy to distinguish individual pieces of cloth. (Lawandy is also Firehammer's academic adviser.)
"Cooking is a lot of science," Firehammer insists. Knowing how ingredients will react to a simmer instead of a rolling boil, for example, can make the difference between a well-textured minestrone and one that looks like oatmeal. Firehammer's pet peeve is an imprecisely salted soup. "People either don't put enough in and it's bland," he says, "or they put in too much and then throw in a bunch of other seasonings to keep it from tasting too salty."
The spare-time chefs wondered what they'd gotten themselves into when they showed up for the contest. "There were all these people with elaborate, enormous set-ups - some even called in florists," D'Alesandre says. "My presentation involved a slab of marble and a loaf of paté." The judges, however, weren't eating with their eyes. D'Alesandre's creation, a slice of dense chocolate mousse topped by a dollop of heavy cream whipped with egg yolks and champagne and served with the coulis (a kind of sweet sauce) as garnish, won him two fifty-dollar gift certificates to a local restaurant. Firehammer's soup - an intense garlic broth served over freshly chopped tomatoes, green onions, avocado, and cheese - netted him six months of free cable television.
Both men have culinary ambitions. Firehammer wants to write a vegetarian cookbook for non-vegetarians. "Just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you can't eat well," he says. And D'Alesandre says he repeatedly asks himself one question about the future: "Can I make enough money being an engineer to open a chocolate store?"