They came from all over the West Coast, six challengers armed to the teeth with knives and steel wills. They would need both to come out on top.
They are the most prestigious culinary students from some of the country's most prestigious schools, vying for a spot in the finals of the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition. They battled in a regional event last week at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California — Hollywood.
The winner would go on to the finals in Napa Valley, competing for $22,000 in prizes.
They emerged from their kitchens exhausted and sweaty. Then the chefs left, their months of preparation at an end.
But one stayed behind because there was still work to be done. The kitchen needed cleaning, the judges' dais needed to be taken down. There were classes in the morning, and his first was at 7 a.m.
Burbank High School graduate Sevada Armen represented the Art Institute in the competition — an honor itself since each school sends its top chef. His cooking artistry got him there, but equally as responsible is his iron work ethic.
When he's not attending classes or working at school, he is a chef at the Mr. C Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he is also an apprentice general manager.
The night before the event, Armen couldn't sleep. He put his favorite song on repeat and eventually drifted off. At the start of the competition he carefully carved each individual cherry tomato, "White Flag" by Dido still echoing in his head.
"I stressed myself so much I can't even think about it all," he said.
Armen's admittance to the nationwide competition did not surprise his mentor, Burbank High School culinary arts teacher Judy Shalhoub.
"It was the most fun four years I've had in the school — he would make us lunch every single day," Shalhoub said. "He was always, 'Let me create something.' It was hysterical."
For the Almost Famous competition, Armen prepared a sous vide halibut (basically boiled in a bag so it wouldn't dry out) with saffron rice and roasted tomatoes. He had two hours to complete the dish.
He thought he only had one.
As he began preparing the meal he told me the timing would be fine. He was calm — smiling like he might in his mother's kitchen, which he says is very much her domain. It is where he learned to love cooking.
Later, he said the timing error became an issue, as he had to recalculate every piece's preparation.
At his stainless steel table he soon found the comforts of his calling. Armen's home field advantage allowed him to deftly navigate around the other competitors and the kitchen judges — instructors from the students' schools who critiqued their food preparation skills.
One of the judges said she witnessed a student in a past competition drop something on the floor, rinse it off, and continue cooking. No such violations were witnessed this year.
Another team of judges performed the taste tests. Three chefs from area restaurants graded the food preparation, while three media judges assessed the food and the chef's grace under pressure. I was a judge in the latter group.
Armen was the fifth competitor. We had already sampled a pancetta-wrapped steak, two different spice-crusted lambs, and chicken ballotine.
He entered the room confidently, and even though I was across the room in my spot at the center of the judges' dais, I could see Armen's broad smile, which rarely left him. He walked confidently, trading breezy banter with the event emcee and getting a few laughs from the crowd while we judges dove into his dish.
I don't like fish. I like tomatoes even less. I don't know if it was the sous-vide preparation or the wine, but I ate about three-quarters of it (and would have eaten more) before I remembered I still have to try one more plate after his.
The tomatoes were sweet, a little spicy, and smoky — my three favorite flavors.
So Armen made me a fish-and-tomato convert — for that alone he deserved high marks. Even so, it was not the best dish of the night — that honor went to Joseph Johnson of Pasadena, a student at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles.
His Moroccan Ras El Hanout Crusted Lamb was elevated by an original spice rub based on a recipe he found on the Internet, and perfectly coupled with a micro green salad and a vegetable puree.
Armen felt good about his performance. As we talked after the competition, a spectator approached him and said, "That fork went into that food and it was pristine."
Once again, Armen smiled.
"I didn't know how much fun I would have until I walked into that kitchen and they said 'Go,'" he said.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he's not learning the difference between sous vide and sauté, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.