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Thumbnail image for student16_5563.jpg Kendall College senior Marco Bahena won the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition in Napa Valley over the weekend, beating out nine other culinary students for the title.

Bahena, 21, a Vernon Hills native, gets $10,000 and a yearlong paid apprenticeship with one of the chef judges of his choosing (who include luminaries such as Michel Richard and Chicago's own Tony Mantuano).

Bahena's dish, a Mediterranean lamb loin, also won in the Signature Dish category -- which puts an additional $3,000 in his wallet.

For the competition, Bahena recreated his dish from the Chicago regionals, but instead of making six full portions for judges, he had to make 200 tasting portions.

Bahena says he hasn't decided yet which chef he'll work for, though he adds, "I will say I plan on taking the opportunity to go work outside of Chicago for a while and come back with a whole new set of knowledge."

[photo courtesy S. Pellegrino]

Marco Bahena had two hours to turn out the dish he'd been practicing for months.

And that the 21-year-old Kendall College senior did, winning the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef north central regional competition held Wednesday at Kendall.

The contest is for culinary students. Two of the competitors attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago; two others flew in from the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes International Minnesota.

Bahena's dish -- lamb loin wrapped in chicken mousseline and served with an olive oil-poached potato and a bacon-studded Lyonnaise salad -- wasn't flawless, he admits.

"One of the loins was a little too rare. I pulled it a little too soon," he says, a point one of the judges, chef Joncarl Lachman of HB Home Bistro and Vincent, questioned him on.

But the sophistication of the dish still impressed the judges, who included David Posey of Blackbird and John State of Seasons 52. (I was one of the media judges, along with Don Newcomb of ChicaGourmets! and WMAQ-Channel 5's Christian Farr.)

Bahena employed caul fat, onto which he spread the mousseline, then wrapped up the lamb loin jelly roll-style. He says he was inspired by the late French master Auguste Escoffier's influential cookbook, which still serves as a Bible of sorts for chefs and culinary schools.

Bahena, a Vernon Hills native now living in Logan Square (no relation to the supremely talented, peripatetic chef Geno Bahena, though "I get asked that a lot"), heads to the finals in Napa Valley, a three-day event starting March 11, where he'll cook his dish for a judging panel that will include Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen of rm seafood in Las Vegas and Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin. The winner gets $10,000 and a paid apprenticeship.

The contest is a huge door-opener for students. Last year's winner, Brian Schreiber, a Kendall graduate, is now working for Mantuano at Terzo Piano in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lachman, the winner of the first Almost Famous competition in 2002, was so impressed by another student last year that he eventually hired him. "He's now my main sausage maker," Lachman says.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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