The University Record, June 3, 2002

Union Chef sizzles in competition

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Wright (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)
The Iron Chefs of Food Network fame were not in the running, but Pat Wright, chef at the Michigan Union, was. And he won.

The regional competition for college and university chefs was held at the University of Notre Dame in March. It was there that Wright walked away with a silver medal from the American Culinary Federation. As champion of the event, he beat out more than 10 other competitors from eight different Midwest schools. This win qualifies Wright for the National Association of College and University Foodservice Nationals to be held in Orlando, Fla., in July.

After submitting a written recipe, a photo of himself and one of his culinary creations for sea scallops, Wright joined the other contestants the day before preparing their entries. In round one, judges graded the chefs on how they cleaned vegetables, prepared the scallops for cooking, and cleaned and conditioned their work stations—all in 45 minutes.

That session was followed by a 15-minute test of cutting skills where each contestant began with three raw potatoes, one of which had to be cut into 1/8 x 1/8 x 1/8 inch slices, another 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 inch slices, and the other into1/8 x 1/8 x 2 inch slices. The judges weighed and measured each cut.

With the preliminaries out of the way, the chefs began preparing their submitted recipes the next day. This race had a staggered start with one chef beginning his work every ten minutes. By this time the convivial Wright had 40–50 people standing around his table, cheering him on. His pancetta-wrapped sea scallops with a tomato and onion duxelles served with a soft Gorgonzola polenta and a red beet coulis, was enough to win the judge’s taste buds and the overall competition.

And that’s not bad for a relative youngster in the profession who says his interest in food was born of a “family with little money and lots of kids—10 to be exact.”

Wright began his career as a 15-year old, washing dishes in the Playboy Club in Lansing. There he was promoted to line cook, and four years later to head banquet chef. He moved to Ann Arbor as a sous chef at the Sheraton Inn on State Street where he rapidly moved up to head chef and then corporate chef. With more experience at other Ann Arbor eateries, including Katherine’s Catering, Wright moved on to the Michigan Union where he started as an assistant and has been Chef for two and a half years, nearly doubling the amount of business with his innovative menus.

Wright soon will change the University Club menu again, this time with additions that include a blackened portobello salad, orange-wasabi chicken salad, a Jamaica jerk tortilla wrap and a steak sandwich with bleu cheese sauce.

Wright also oversees the Union’s banquet facilities. While there is a booklet of suggested banquet items, Wright and his staff also will work with clients to provide exactly what they want for their wedding reception, business lunch or celebration. With catering clients scheduled far in advance, Wright and the staff offer free tasting sessions three times a year, inviting those clients to sample about 20 different entrees to help them make a decision as to what will work best for them and their guests.

So, what does a guy involved with food and cooking as a profession do on his days off? He cooks, of course. “My holiday gift to my family is a Christmas dinner,” Wright says. “It’s a buffet, usually planned just the day before, but always includes chicken, beef and fish.”

Wright says he is a meat and potato guy whose ideal meal is a “steak with a bone, some sort of potato and a cold beer.” Those in his neighborhood (and he isn’t saying just where that is) know that there is an open invitation on Sundays to stop by for some barbeque and a pop.