Culinary students compete for guest chef spot at Deering Seafood Festival

Four ambitious Johnson & Wales University culinary arts students have competed for a guest chef position at the 13th annual Deering Seafood Festival on March 26.

This year’s winner: JWU junior and teaching assistant Nicole McDonald, whose herb-crusted swordfish over curried potatoes in a tamarind sauce with a dash of thyme wowed judges and will be served at the festival.

“I came into this competition open-minded, just like I do most things,” said McDonald, a Jamaican native who hopes to become a private chef for celebrities. “I really gave it my best and turned out victorious. I am very pleased with the result.”

The private competition, held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 9 in University Center on the JWU campus in North Miami, marked the fifth time the event has occurred since 2012.

To become eligible for the competition, students submitted one-plate recipes featuring a common main ingredient (swordfish) to faculty, who screened and submitted the best entries to the Deering Seafood Festival committee. Four finalists were then selected based on the quality and appropriateness of their dishes.

The other three contestants, Jake Consulta, Tavelle Cox and Tyler Sullivan, applauded McDonald when her name was announced. Consulta served swordfish ceviche prepared in an acidic marinade with passionfruit and lime juice spooned over with leche de tigre. Cox treated judges to fire-roasted swordfish steak with veggie couscous and lemon and dill beurre blanc. Sullivan presented pan-seared Cajun-spiced swordfish with lemon and thyme-infused jasmine rice over asparagus and prosciutto salad.

All four students were aided by teaching assistant Pablo Mendez.

“I think they all represented our school very well,” said Bruce Ozga, JWU dean of culinary education. “They’re professional, the plates looked great, the flavors were on point, but ultimately there had to be one winner. I know Nicole will do a great job presenting in front a large crowd of people, so it will be good exposure for her, as well as for the university.”

The panel of four judges — Miami Herald restaurant critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, Golden Rule Seafood Operations Director Courtney Reeder, Gordon Food Service Customer Development Specialist Mike Batlle and JWU Director of Culinary Operations Christof Wagner — gave encouraging feedback to the students and praised them for their efforts.

“These events are always a little bit of a thrill,” said Wagner. “Even if it’s just on campus, with a peer competition, it’s still something special. And these are kids that stand out. They’re through-and-through in love with cooking, and what they create — what their creative minds put on the plate — is sometimes impressive.”

The student seafood competition is one of several competitive student events held annually at JWU College of Culinary Arts. Others include a vegan cuisine challenge done with the participation of plant-based food purveyor Hampton Creek, a cheese recipe contest for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Young Chef Competition for chefs age 25 and under, which takes place at the university on Saturday, March 25.

More than 8,500 people on Sunday, March 26, are expected to attend the 13th annual Deering Seafood Festival, a South Florida culinary and cultural celebration known for its delectable seafood, celebrity chefs, entertainment and kid-friendly activities.

McDonald will present under the big-top tent set up over the Deering Estate’s historic courtyard alongside featured guest chefs Jeff Maxfield of Brava by Brad Kilgore at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, David Hackett from the Biltmore Hotel, Wilford Charles and Jeffrey Ross from Captain Jim’s Seafood, Jorge Mijangos from Pubbelly Sushi and Damien Gilchrist from Ocean Reef Club.

“Events like these are important in preparing our students for what they’re going to be doing in the future — being able to present and be confident about their dishes and recipes, from submitting them to executing to presenting,” said Chesi Argibay, JWU culinary events manager. “It’s paramount to their success that they have that experience.”

▪ What: Deering Seafood Festival

▪ When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 26

▪ Where: Deering Estate, 16701 SW 72 Ave., Miami

▪ Tickets: $15 in advance and $25 the day of the event. Children 4-14, $5.

For more information, visit To learn more about the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University, visit