One day- and one night- at East Campus

Food Column


Holly Garner

“Lions Under the Lights” is an event that was hosted by UNA’s culinary students in honor of the late Jeff Eubanks. Columnist Lauren Odum worked behind the scenes.

Lauren Jewel Odum, Volunteer Writer

Walking into a new environment is always nerve wracking. When said environment is equipped with giant knives, blistering flames and overly-eager culinary students ready to put them to good use, the stakes become significantly higher. 

Yet, I power through my anxiety, sliding on my toque and gearing up for what is possibly one of the biggest nights for the Jeff Eubanks Culinary Arts Management Program at the University of Alabama. 

As soon as I walk into the kitchen at East Campus, a subsidiary of the main campus at UNA, there is a quiet hum, not to last for long, as a storm of prep work for the big day is brewing. 

The day in question is the Lions Under The Lights event. The cocktail and dinner social brings in university administration, alumni and the bigwigs of the shoals community. Not only is our pride at stake, but at $120 dollars a plate, there is big money involved. So the show must be executed perfectly.

The older students come in, knives blazing. Rightfully so, as they have studied for this moment. 

There’s a budding chef in the corner hammering away at pounds of chicken breasts, creating the foundation for what will be a sous-vide chicken roulade. That is one part of an entrée duo, to be accompanied by short ribs that require braising in an ancho sauce for 22 hours. 

I see two other students tenderly handling sheets of delicate puff pastry, cutting and shaping them into bite-sized circles so that spoonfulls of beer-braised rabbit can be nestled directly atop the flaky dough. 

Chef Einar, the head chef of the event and director of the culinary program, has assigned me with dicing fresh butternut squash and leeks for the vegetarian entrée. Not as exhilarating a task as the student I see wielding an immersion blender the size of a small child, but it must be done. 

As I tuck into my newly minted knife skills, I can sense the excitement in the room growing. 

The aforementioned life-sized immersion blender is whirring away at roasted sweet potatoes for a puree. There are a few alumni chefs in the kitchen, flaunting their skills over the gas grill and offering golden nuggets of wisdom garnered from experiences after crossing the stage. 

Once I finish prepping my vegetables, I am whisked away to help an alumni chef with her dessert, a vanilla bean panna cotta, topped with caramelized apple compote and a ginger lace tuile on a bed of butter crumb, accompanied with cranberry coulis. 

Tuile is a french-style, paper-thin wafer that can be molded into nearly any shape that a chef desires. But as elegant as they might be, they are equally temperamental, and must be molded almost directly out of the oven while they are still warm. 

The chef and I made a mad dash to grab the freshly baked cookies in time to create the perfect crescent shape. This is despite burns from the hot pan, as tuile waits for no man.  

Prep was complete, but that was only half the battle. We shuffled our panna cottas and purees to Harrison Plaza and hid away in what felt like a muggy circus tent, lit only by strings of patio lights, just feet away from our dinner guests. 

Leo III roared excitedly in the distance, and the diners basked in the glow of the open bar, blissfully unaware of the frenzy happening steps away. Myself, the chefs and other students were hurriedly unpacking house-made focaccias and charred baby romaine salads, braised leeks and chicken-shish kabobs, plating them on beautiful wooden platters only for them to be swept away by servers moments later. 

Once the hors d’oeuvres and first courses were out, students rushed into plating the entrée duos. 

Imagine an assembly line, but fine-dining style, where one chef gingerly placed their component onto a plate before slinging it down the line for the next adornment. 

In the blink of an eye, entrées were garnished and plates were fully polished, ready to be devoured by the hungry patrons. 

Meanwhile, I was fighting the elements to ensure the success of the temperamental panna cotta. 

Alabama heat laughs in the face of stereotypical fall weather, and I was falling victim to a melting dessert. Yet, by the grace of whatever god presides over aspiring restaurant chefs, 103 beautiful final courses were sent out to the guests. 

The excitement of the day seemed to slowly set along with the sun. The dining area had that familiar, gentle murmur of guests trying not to talk with their mouths full. The students and I could rest, finally able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. 

There is a small amount of satisfaction when others compliment you on your work, because there is always a nagging sense that they are just being polite. Yet, there is a unique joy in being able to taste a completed dish and truly be proud of what you have accomplished. 

As the night ended, the other students and I enjoyed the high that comes only after a dinner rush. 

And out of the fire and into the fire again, we eagerly described the menu for our next event.