Food-service companies routinely boost kitchen morale by pitting their chefs against one another in Iron Chef-style competitions.

Last month, Philadelphia-based Aramark did just that.

But instead of relying on local food writers and TV personalities to pick a winner, the American Culinary Federation — which sets the standards in American cooking — sent a panel of five master and certified executive chefs to judge the five teams, which worked in a kitchen at Aramark’s new headquarters at 2400 Market St. (Of the 60-plus certified master chefs in the United States, three were on the panel.)

Each team also competed on behalf of a nonprofit group. The top prize: a $10,000 donation.

To create the teams, 295 chefs applied and 134 competed in 21 contests held around the country under the direction of Scott Zahren, Aramark’s culinary director. Three winning chefs from each of Aramark’s business units (business dining, education, health care hospitality, leisure, and sports and entertainment) arrived in Philadelphia on Nov. 19.

The next day at 8 a.m., the first team of three received a mystery basket with such items as freekeh, hominy, prawns, pork belly, pheasant, beef tongue, black bass, blood oranges, Asian pears, squash, gochujang, Amish goat cheese, and ginger beer. Team members had 30 minutes to write a menu, after which they started cooking. Plating started at noon and stopped at 1 p.m. The remaining teams each began an hour apart.

The mystery basket of ingredients used in the Aramark competition includes freekeh, prawns, pheasant, beef tongue, black bass, and squash.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
The mystery basket of ingredients used in the Aramark competition includes freekeh, prawns, pheasant, beef tongue, black bass, and squash.

What were the judges looking for? “Taste, taste, taste,” said Ferdinand Metz, a judge and a certified master chef. “The fourth one is presentation.”

When the steam cleared, Stephen Aheimer, Richard Grab, and Allan Wambaa from the sports and entertainment group won the Copper Pot and the $10,000 prize, which went to Back on My Feet, a charity that fights homelessness. (Other nonprofits were given $5,000.)

The winning four-course menu consisted of pheasant ravioli, seared black bass and sous-vide gambas, a butternut squash soup amped up with beef tongue and Amish goat cheese, and chocolate-almond-coconut macaroon bar made with ginger beer-beet puree, ruby chocolate sauce, and glass sugar.

The winning team of Aramark chefs (from left): Richard Grab, Stephen Aheimer, and Allan Wambaa.
COURTESY ARAMARK
The winning team of Aramark chefs (from left): Richard Grab, Stephen Aheimer, and Allan Wambaa.

Will these specific dishes appear on Aramark menus? Doubtful. But, said Marc Bruno, Aramark’s chief operating officer for U.S. Food & Facilities, “it allows us to highlight our culinary strengths. Chefs rise up around innovation and creativity.”

For the competing chefs, it meant a trip to Philadelphia, face time with the home office, dinner at Zahav, and peer bonding.

“We got as much out of it as we put into it," said Aheimer, who is chef at FirstEnergy Stadium, where the Cleveland Browns play. (The Browns gave him a customized jersey to commemorate his win.)

Early on, Aheimer and his teammates decided who would do what. Aheimer got the dessert, but each pitched in with the others’ courses.

“If you can’t rely on your teammates, it’s not going to work.”

Pheasant ravioli, with pork-belly escarole, sauteed crimini mushrooms, and pheasant demi, was one of the winning dishes.
COURTESY ARAMARK
Pheasant ravioli, with pork-belly escarole, sauteed crimini mushrooms, and pheasant demi, was one of the winning dishes.