March 1, 2019

CIA Culinary Science Grads Win Ment’or Competition

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Ian Cairns and Bryn Timmis didn’t just win the 2018 Ment’or Young Chef competition in Las Vegas—they made history.

The teammates were the first chefs with CIA culinary science degrees to ever compete in the event, which recognizes young chefs with the potential to one day represent Team USA in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or. So to take first place was a big deal for the culinary science program and, according to them, a victory for food nerds everywhere.

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“It was great to represent our curriculum as the first in our generation,” says Ian Cairns, chef at Mélisse in Santa Monica, CA and a 2015 CIA culinary science graduate. “Truly it was a story similar to Revenge of the Nerds—but with no revenge, just nerds.”

Ian’s hand-picked assistant, 2018 grad Bryn Timmis, concurs. “I was a science nerd in high school. I watched an episode of Chefs vs. City and it got me into the whole molecular gastronomy thing. But I started to realize I needed to know how to cook before I could start doing the fancy stuff.”

That realization led Bryn to the CIA, just as it had lured Ian to the college a few years earlier. “I was pursuing a military career and studying environmental science and horticulture at Virginia Tech,” Ian recalls. “As I was researching and doing the work, I realized the one thing I wanted to do was cook. So I applied and got accepted to the CIA. With the cul sci program, I liked that you continue to cook while also having academic classes.”

A Perfect Pairing

The fact that both chefs came from the same CIA culinary science background paid immediate dividends for the Ment’or competition. “We share the same mindset, the same sense of organization, of the whole research process,” Ian says. “A lot of the competitors wanted their dishes to represent themselves. We took a more holistic approach—what needs to be done and how do we make it work? We had a lighter, cleaner flavor profile using techniques we learned in culinary science.”

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That mindset was evident in their practice and preparation as well. “Thanks to our education, we worked really fast in the kitchen,” Bryn explains. “It helped with streamlining the process and being more efficient. We’d do a few rounds of recipe testing, and the first round looked nothing like the last! It was a true R&D process; we attacked it, broke it down.”

That Winning Feeling

The stage was set the day before the competition, when the teams organized their materials and picked numbers out of a hat to determine the order. That’s when Ian and Bryn realized they were going first. It made for an interesting dynamic the next day.

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“The kitchen was completely glass-enclosed, so all eyes were on us, and since we were going first we were in the front,” Ian says. “It was a little unnerving at first, but once we got into a rhythm it was all instinctual. When we started cooking, we didn’t even need to talk to one another. We were ready!”

The team’s creativity and attention to detail shone through in the dish they prepared and presented:

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Spiced-Roasted Elysian Fields Purebred Lamb

Tartlet of Coleman Family Farms Celtuce

Braised Chickpeas

Preserved Lime

Caramelized Cauliflower

Green Garlic Jus

Bryn recalls how everyone was so supportive throughout the day. “The chefs watching said ‘good job’ and ‘nice plates’ and were very reassuring,” he says.

The hosting organization, the Ment’or BKB Foundation, was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and its founders—famed chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jerome Bocuse—were ever-present to advise the competitors. The guest chef jury included Paul Bartolotta, Justin Cogley, Gerard Craft, Olivier Dubreuil, Chris Hastings, Timothy Hollingsworth, Michelle Karr-Ueoka, Gavin Kaysen, Mathew Peters, Francis Reynard, Rich Rosendale, Curtis Stone, and Philip Tessier.

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Chef Boulud announced the winners, starting from third place on up to first. “I felt confident, but the nerves were still there,” says Ian. “When we found out we won, we were ecstatic. It made it that much more special to me that my family was there.” Adds Bryn: “We were excited, jumping around…it was unreal.”

Equally unreal was the duo’s trip to France a month later for the Bocuse d’Or competition, earned as a result of their Ment’or victory. “There was an insane amount of energy—techno music blaring, cowbells and airhorns, everyone making as much noise as they could to support their countries,” Ian says.

Inspiration and Opportunity

At the end of the day, both competitors strongly credit the CIA culinary science program for giving them the tools they needed to succeed. 

For Ian, it’s the culinary confidence, the problem-solving skills, and increased curiosity that make the difference. “It inspires you to take your own creativity and apply it to something entirely new,” he explains. “It doesn’t just teach you things, it invigorates you to go out and do what you want to do. That’s what makes it so different from other programs. It provides a deeper understanding of what happens with food. You get a skill set that puts you leaps and bounds above your peers, and that opens up more career opportunities down the road.”

Bryn, whose next stop is London to work at the restaurant Lino, loves how the program forces students to “question what we do on a regular basis, always asking ‘Why?’ It teaches you how to think about the world, adapt to any situation, think critically rather than just do.”

That’s exactly what these two CIA grads did, all the way to victory at the Ment’or Young Chef competition. It was strong validation that the college’s culinary science program turns out science-minded grads who are also great chefs.

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Or, as Bryn put it: “There we were, two weird nerdy dudes, showing up and doing our thing. All the work and practice paid off!”

And the rest is history.