Jason Sipe graduated from Pacific Lutheran University without taking a single cooking class.
Sipe spent one summer as a camp cook in Idaho. And he was a food critic for PLU’s student newspaper, but his only qualification was self-confidence.
So it’s not easy to explain why the 24-year-old landed a spot among 16 chefs taking part in a national contest sponsored by Culinary Hall of Famer Thomas Keller.
The Young Chef Competition does not require contestants to have puttered around a kitchen as a child.
Good thing. When Sipe graduated from the Parkland university with a degree in religion in 2011, he didn’t know how to cook.
“My first experience cooking was at a summer camp in Idaho in 2009,” said Sipe, who grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho. “I knew nothing about cooking. I started working in The Commons kitchen on campus in 2012.”
While the skill came to him late, the product has turned into a full-time preoccupation.
“Food is all I think about. Mostly the creation of it. Can I change a taste, a texture?” Sipe asked. “I tend to think in terms of ‘why not?’ No idea is a failure if you keep working on it.”
Working as a line cook at the campus cafeteria-style restaurant, Sipe’s duties usually includes the dinner shift from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. During that time, he and two other cooks serve 700 to 800 meals.
Sipe has moved far beyond burgers and fries.
“When you’re working in the line here, you’re always aware of what others are doing around you,” he said. “We learn every day. We’re often asked to help with catering or special events, and we do theme restaurants.
“A few weeks ago, we did Indonesian food and I’d never even seen Indonesian food. I followed my sous chef and did my best to recreate the taste.”
Amanda Schmidt, a recent PLU graduate — she got her degree in English — is a prep cook in The Commons and has admired Sipe for his approach to food.
“Jason is fearless,” Schmidt said.
Sipe shrugged. “What I like to eat dictates what I cook.”
Twice before, he entered regional cooking competitions offered by the American Culinary Federation. In Portland, judges liked his food but thought he hadn’t put enough protein on the plate.
Next time around, in Seattle, he won the bronze medal.
Now comes Keller’s competition. How elite is it? Only 16 chefs are entered, but each will be matched in a group of four, with one winner emerging from all four groups. Sipe will face chefs from California, Utah and Louisiana.
Sipe and an assistant — he’s asked Schmidt to join him — will be given 21/2 hours to prepare and present eight identical dishes to eight judges in Beverly Hills, California, on Oct. 30. There are plenty of rules, and the competitors will each begin with the same main ingredient.
Five pounds of rib-eye steak.
Sipe has determined how he’ll prepare his meal, and he and Schmidt ran a time test this week that included trying different plates.
“We tried two different configurations so I could decide which kind of plate worked,” Sipe said. “How the dish displays is important.”
Precisely what Sipe will be putting on those plates is a secret for now. The competition, he points out, can read.
In fact, reading is how Sipe found out about Keller’s contest.
“I follow him on Twitter,” Sipe said of the man named best chef in America three years running by one esteemed group or another. “When I applied, I certainly didn’t think I was a shoo-in, but I thought I had something to bring to the table.”
And something worth competing for. Each of the four winners will receive a $15,000 internship in one of a number of participating restaurants.
For a man who wants to own a restaurant, that would be a fine start.
“I definitely want to run the restaurant — that’s why I’m going after the business MBA,” Sipe said. “I’ve got a name in mind, but it’s not trademarked, so I don’t talk about it.”
Attitude? Sipe has plenty. It’s how he landed a paying gig with the PLU newspaper, The Mooring Mast.
“I did restaurant reviews, one review each week,” Sipe said. “I was being paid to eat. My qualifications were that I wanted to do it, and I pitched it before anyone else did.”
Now, he’ll be plating food in Beverly Hills to eight elite chefs who will judge his meal.
“I’m honored,” Sipe said. “But I’m not intimidated.”