Brian Duffett knows that practice makes perfect.
His continuous efforts to be the best – along with his spot-on culinary skills – recently won Duffett top honors in the National SkillsUSA culinary competition.
In June, Duffett showcased his skills against 26 other state champions to take home the gold medal and bragging rights as the nation’s top culinary student. He is the only Alabama college student to have ever won the competition. Even more important to Duffett, he won a $50,000 culinary scholarship to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Duffett, 20, not only has inner confidence but a solid determination to become one of the nation’s best chefs. While the Jefferson State Community College student admitted he was well-prepared, Duffett said the 3-hour culinary competition was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I’ve done roasted chicken probably 40 times, so the chicken was no longer fun for me to eat,” said Duffett, who is studying to be a savory chef, specializing in the “hot” side of a restaurant. “It was exciting, but nerve-wracking.
“I did a four-course meal: a couscous salad with citrus vinaigrette, lentil soup infused with roasted red bell pepper, braised beef cheek with gnocchetti and the chicken,” he said. “Most people do a basic salad, but I did a composed salad with a cookie – a tuile – on top. I probably practiced the salad nine times.”
Duffett’s classic cookie was “paper-thin,” made with walnuts, lemon zest and apples.
“I like doing the tuile because it gives the salad a crunch and more texture, instead of the expected croutons,” he said.
If other competitors weren’t nervous about Duffett’s precision execution of the fine-dining experience, they were perhaps a little apprehensive about his sheer size. Towering at 6-foot 5-inches tall, Duffett easily dominated the kitchen — and the competition.
Duffett, a sophomore at Jefferson State, began working his apprenticeship for chef Trent Bissell at Todd English P.U.B. at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham to working at the city’s new Elyton Hotel. Haller Magee, former executive chef at Satterfield’s Restaurant in Cahaba Heights and at Sky Castle, is executive chef for The Yard, Elyton’s restaurant offering Southern progressive cuisine.
Duffett also serves as an apprentice chef, with his work documented for class during his final semester of college. After he completes the fall semester, Duffett will continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America.
Gold medal chef’s training began at home
Many chefs get their start in a professional kitchen. Duffett’s cooking chops were honed at home, under the tutelage of his father.
“My dad always cooked at home for us,” Duffett said. “One day he announced that I would go to the store and buy all the food for a meal, and be allowed to cook it for the family. He did this with my brother and sister, too. We’re all good cooks. I have a meatball recipe that I like to fix. It’s our family’s secret recipe.”
In 2015, during his senior year at Hewitt-Trussville High School, Duffett enrolled in the culinary program.
“That’s where I met chef Anna Hallman,” Duffett said. “She really encouraged me in this career, to work hard.” Before taking the culinary teaching position in Trussville, Hallman served as a sous chef for 10 years at Kathy G and Co. in Birmingham.
Hallman advised Duffett to train at several professional kitchens. He got the opportunity to work stage under chef John Rolen at Bottega Restaurant in Birmingham, owned by noted chef Frank Stitt. For nine straight years, Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill has been a finalist for Outstanding Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation.
“Getting to work in Bottega, I realized that I prefer a fine-dining type of kitchen,” Duffett said. “Staging exposed me to new techniques, new cuisines and a totally new cooking environment that I loved.”
This winter, Duffett looks forward to starting at the Culinary Institute of America, a private college that, for more than 70 years, has set the standard for excellence in culinary, baking and pastry arts education.
Reaching for the high mark of success
Chef Joseph Mitchell, Ph.D., program director of the Culinary and Hospitality Institute at Jefferson State Community College, said Duffett has what it takes to excel as a chef.
“Brian has the skills to be successful,” said Mitchell, who was a chef at the Opryland Hotel and at Mario’s Ristorante in Nashville, Tennessee. “At this point, he will grow and become a professional chef – we expect him to do well.”
“You’ve got to be talented, persevere and put the work in,” Mitchell said. “Brian has all of that. You have to strive to be the best.”
Mitchell is thrilled that Duffett won the SkillsUSA competition. While he pulled off the big win, Duffett is the second Jefferson State Community College student in two years to receive honors. In 2016, Joy Phillips took third place in the national event.
Like other Jefferson State culinary students, Duffett has taken his turn working in the college’s Bistro proVare restaurant at the Shelby-Hoover campus on Valleydale Road. Students operate the Bistro, which is open to the public and offers classic fare such as fresh grilled salmon with rice pilaf, asparagus and beurre blanc, and mascarpone cheesecake.
“It’s a working classroom for our apprentices, but Bistro guests enjoy the tastes and atmosphere of a fine-dining experience,” said Mitchell, who has led Jefferson State’s culinary program for 15 years. “The restaurant is an opportunity for students in advanced class to get real-life experience.”
The Bistro is open for lunch Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the fall and spring semesters.
Magic City’s future ‘Iron Chef’ to train in the Big Apple
Alabama folks are well accustomed to winning national football championships and other sports titles. Mitchell sees Duffett’s success as a crowning achievement, as well, for the state.
“Brian’s win is a jewel for Jefferson State, for Alabama and for the greater Birmingham area,” said Mitchell, who noted that Jefferson State’s culinary program is the longest running accredited program in the state.
“When you compare the expertise of our instructors, the facilities, affordable tuition and our program partnerships, it’s easy to recognize that Jefferson State is not only a tremendous value, but a leader in culinary and hospitality education,” he said.
After his big gold-medal win, Duffett knows he has no place to go but up.
“I want to have my own kitchen one day,” Duffett said. “I’m excited about starting the Culinary Institute and seeing what the future holds for me.”