For two months, Katie Barnes ate the type of dessert that would leave most people salivating: deep-fried bunyols (also known as buñuelos) with dark chocolate filling, accompanied by a rhubarb caramel sauce, fresh strawberries and pistachio-butter ice cream topped with caramel brittle. But there was a catch. Or a few catches, actually.
First, Barnes had to make the dish herself from scratch. It took about an hour each time, and the first-year Missoula College culinary student had to do all of the preparation and cooking under the guidance of her professor, Tom Campbell.
Second, Barnes had to eat the traditional South American or Spanish dessert, which is usually only served on holidays, every day. Sometimes, she ate the bunyols—fried dough, sort of like a more delicate, harder-to-make doughnut—and ice cream twice in one day.
Third, she had to eat the full dish for breakfast, usually before the sun came up. That meant setting her alarm for 4 a.m., getting to the kitchen by 5 and tasting her first bite by 6. Instructors are required to supervise students in the culinary kitchen, and it was the only open time that also worked with both her and Campbell's schedules.
As delicious as the dessert sounds, you can understand if Barnes isn't exactly rushing to make it again anytime soon.
"It's really good," Barnes says, "but after eating it for two months straight at 6 o'clock in the morning, it sort of lost its appeal for me. It's probably not something I'll ever cook again, but it's also something I'll never forget."
A gold medal has a way of solidifying memory. After her two months of practice, Barnes executed the dish to perfection in May at the American Culinary Foundation's national competition in Bellingham, Wash. The event drew more than 60 student and professional chefs from around the country, and Barnes took top honors in the category of dessert pastry.
"I got all of my panicking and stress out before the competition even started," Barnes says. "I thought I was going to lose it about five minutes before heading into the kitchen, freaking out, but when the clock started I actually found myself very calm. Everything went smoothly."
Barnes believes her practice and preparation paid off, but she's also quick to thank Campbell for guiding her through the process. He suggested the cookbook from which she chose the traditional bunyol recipe. He also helped watch her sanitation habits, timing and cooking techniques during those early-morning sessions, as well as evaluate her flavors and plating presentation when each practice version was done. While Campbell offered feedback and answered questions, Barnes was still the one who conceptualized the entire dish and made changes along the way.
"He gave me the reins, which I really appreciate," she says. "It always felt like I was making my dish."
For a first-year culinary student, the competition experience proved invaluable. Barnes had always been a casual cook at home, experimenting with cool-looking Pinterest dishes or trying to recreate a recipe from Mom or Grandmom"nothing too crazy," she says. She first enrolled in Missoula with an eye toward anthropology, but ended up pursuing culinary classes last fall on a whim. Within a couple weeks of starting the program, she found she held a passion for the work.
Now, Barnes is eager to keep learning and log more time in the kitchen. She plans on spending the summer as an intern in the culinary arts program while also working her regular job as a barista for Loose Caboose. That means she's still waking up before most anyone else, but this time it's to make lattes instead of five-star desserts.
"I usually only have coffee for breakfast," she confesses, "and that's just fine."