For the past several weeks, Janine Hall has been trying to show a full venison strip loin who’s boss. The student at Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute has been dishing out $100 every time for the game meat so she can perfect cooking it. She does it with the hope of nailing every detail in its preparation and wowing judges at the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef regional competition on Feb. 25 at Cirillo’s Culinary Academy in Toronto. “Each time I try different aspects to make sure I’m being consistent with the quality every time,” Hall said. “I do the entire competition every week.” That means, in addition to shelling out big bucks for the main ingredient, she also sets the timer for two hours. That’s all she’ll get next week when she has to churn out 10 identical plates — each requiring eight steps to be ready to present to judges — of venison with a Jamaican-inspired jerk rub, cranberry, Swiss chard, butternut squash, pigeon peas, plantain pureed with parsley root, and beet and potato frites. It’s not a lot of time to even perform the 80 steps to plate the intricate meal that features the sweet, spicy and tart flavours of her Jamaican-Dutch ancestry, let alone cook it. But as a student about to graduate, Hall refuses to settle for less than perfection in the pressure cooker setting of a culinary contest. After all, there’s a year’s worth of apprenticing under the best in business and $20,000 up for grabs. The contest also brings together students from more than 60 culinary schools in North America, each battling for a spot in the finals in Napa in March. Her judges will be celebrity chefs and the who’s who of food media. “That’s pretty incredible and the exposure I get could change my career,” Hall, 25, said. “Often (to get ahead) it’s who you know in this industry, especially in this region.” So, at least one more time before Monday, she’ll likely present her practice plates to a group of lucky friends, family and faculty, who will show their gratitude by filling out comment cards that give Hall an honest assessment of what they just ate. To be sure, she’s not looking for praise. “I focus on the negative. I don’t need to hear the dish is delicious,” she said. “I learn from that (negative feedback). In those moments, I may get discouraged but it’s what sticks and I’ll use it to get better.” She also does it all in between attending school full-time and working three jobs. The hungry can taste Hall’s handiwork locally at Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine in Port Dalhousie, where she works on weekends. She also cooks at Rise Above, a vegan hot spot that has brought cruelty-free dining to the mainstream in St. Catharines. So why put in the extra time and take on all the extra pressure to participate in culinary competition when her foot seems firmly planted in the proverbial door? Yes, there’s the prize and the exposure. But more important to Hall, who adopted a vegan diet five months ago, is the learning experience. “You get all of the organizational skills and that’s really important for a chef,” Hall explained. “It’s hard for students to learn but competition forces you to step up. “I never go in thinking I’m going to win,” she added. “I’m a confident person but I don’t expect to win. I’m happy to win… and it’s nice to know chefs have confidence in me.” And they do. As a first-year student last year, she nailed the Tabasco Brand’s Street Heat Junior Chef Meet with her jerk chicken roti. She also helped lead a team of fellow students to the college’s second consecutive gold medal at the annual Bartley Culinary Challenge in Toronto, prepping lamb leg for 100 dinners and going plate to plate with students from Humber and Georgian colleges. Hall has also competed at the Ontario Apprentice Competition sponsored by the Chaine des Rotisseurs in Toronto. And she volunteers at every event she can that the Canadian Food and Wine Institute hosts. “I wouldn’t be given competitions if I didn’t put myself out there like I have,” she said. But when she puts herself out there once again, Hall won’t be doing it with a vegan meal, despite her own convictions and hopes that more people will eschew meat to sustain them. “I feel for a culinary competition, what they want to see from students is technique and one of the techniques they want to see is if we can cook meat,” Hall said. “I just want to be able to show that I can be a chef that can cook a variety of things.” Enter the venison. She chose the game meat because it’s not the product of a factory farm. With a focal point for a meal, the rest of the menu came relatively easy, Hall said. With venison triggering thoughts of the north, cranberries seemed like a natural fit. The chard stems from her love of kale, the jerk rub on the venison from the influence of her Jamaican background. Pigeon peas and plantain are also a nod to her heritage, while the beets, potatoes and butternut squash represent what’s local and seasonal. “I wanted to show off some of the spectacular flavours of the region. I grew up in Hamilton but only just discovered how amazing it is to the east (here in Niagara),” Hall explained. Combined, though, she has a dish that she’s certain could take the cake, even if the judges on Monday don’t deem it so. “It’s playful and colourful and feminine but appeals to men. It’ll make a whole lot of mouths happy,” Hall said. “I think it’s going to appeal to a lot of people. Even it doesn’t win, I feel like it’s a winner.” Check out some of the recipes from previous Almost Famous Chef competitions online. The tea-smoked scallops with pickled beets really get my little heart going pitter patter. The kind folks at San Pellegrino have offered up a $150-gift certificate to Niagara’s Vintage Hotels to one lucky reader of this post. Ross Macfarlane is the lucky duck on the receiving end for his eagle eye during an inadvertent round of name that celebrity chef. I misidentified David Adjey as Michael Adjey and Ross caught it. Thank you, Ross!