Come February, when the South Beach Wine & Food Festival hits our velvety sands for the 14th year, a lot of money will be raised for Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality. And there will be one particular FIU graduate student eager to get his hands on the goody bags given out at most events.
The student is Eddie Zeng, and he was crowned the winner of the second-annual student spice competition sponsored by FIU and spice giant Badia. Students were invited to create the "ultimate spice of life."
"I was encouraged by friends and family," Zeng says. It was his first time making a spice. After students submitted seasoning recipes with quantities and ingredients, the school reviewed all entries and decided on five students, who then went head-to-head in a spice cook-off.
The seasoning was meant for seafood, which the five finalists had to cook on the spot. "In this case, we used sea bass and shrimp and could cook it in whatever method we preferred that would best show off our spice."
Zeng's winning blend combined thyme, kosher salt, celery seed, fennel seed, cumin, paprika, black pepper, and smoked paprika. "I did a bit of research when coming up with submissions, looking around at competing brands and what ingredients they use to then piece together possible combinations that were balanced and could get the most flavor out of it when cooking in any method."
Zeng says his first batch of spice lacked salt. So he added more to his second and final submission. He also tweaked it with a bit of thyme. "Thyme goes really well with seafood," he says. Zeng's favorite spice, however, is black pepper. "It's the one seasoning I use [in emergencies]. I just add black pepper to make up for it."
The day of the cook-off, Zeng was cool, calm, and collected. "It started around 1 p.m., and we had a few hours to make seasoning and also prepare the fish. Most of the time was spent getting rid of the bones on fish and deciding whether to either leave the tail on or off the shrimp." A ten-minute window for finishing touches and plating was allowed before each contestant sent the final dish to the three local celebrity chef judges. Daisy Diaz from Sabores Café, Mark Militello from Mark's Place, and Hector Morales from Epicure judged the dishes and spices on creativity, flavor, appearance, and description.
"They made a comment about my fish being moist and tender, which I thought was a good sign." Indeed, it was, because shortly thereafter, Zeng was proclaimed winner. "I just stayed cool, shook people's hands, and said thank you to everyone." His reward: bragging rights, of course, plus $5,000 toward his scholarship at FIU and worldwide distribution of his spice, which will debut at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Five percent of all global sales of Zeng's spice will go right back to the FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality.
"It is an extremely rewarding experience to help develop the next generation of industry professionals," Badia CEO Joseph Badia says. "I was so impressed with the winning spice and can't wait to have it on shelves. I know everyone is going to love it."
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The other four finalists were each awarded a $2,500 scholarship. As for Zeng, he's looking forward to seeing the final product packaged and labeled. "I'll have to talk to Badia to see if I'm entitled to spice quantities for life. If not, I can always make it at home."
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha