Monday, February 23, 2009

Pastry Chef Is Preparing for a National Stage

Megan Ketover never got an Easy Bake Oven when she was a girl. Instead, when the baking bug bit, her mom told her to use the big old gas oven in the kitchen.

Good move, Mom.

Ketover, you see, has turned out to be an accomplished pastry chef.

Indeed, at the tender age of 29, Ketover – an adjunct faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College – has just been named Regional Pastry Chef of the Year for the Northeast Region of the American Culinary Federation.

She will now compete in July in the Federation’s national competition in Orlando.

Ketover’s path to the pastry kitchen at Cincinnati State was as circuitous as it was fortuitous.

After graduating from Cincinnati’s renowned Walnut Hills High School, she enrolled at Sam Houston State University in Texas, with plans to major in business. But Ketover started working in the retail industry during school – so much so that she began to win promotions even though she hadn’t finished her degree. She was on the eve of another promotion when she learned that the Midwest Culinary Institute was starting a pastry program. It occasioned a big decision.

“When the pastry program opened here, I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I could do that for a living?’’ Ketover recalled.

It turned out she could.

Ketover left retailing -- and any plans she might have entertained about returning to school in Texas -- and enrolled at Cincinnati State. She graduated summa cum laude from the Midwest Culinary Institute in 2007.

After working at several restaurants and hotels in Greater Cincinnati, Ketover came back to the Midwest Culinary Institute as an adjunct instructor. She also helps out as a prep chef for the weekly television show, The Dish, that’s filmed in the MCI studio kitchen. And she spends a fair amount of time helping out with Cincinnati State’s retail bakery.

But where Ketover has really made a name for herself, at least at MCI, is her cakes. Luscious, elegant, whimsical cakes – the sort that look too good to slice, but taste too good to not eat.

Flip through a montage of photos of the cakes she’s done and you’ll find the monkey guards from Wizard of Oz. A Cincinnati chili dog. A disturbingly realistic catfish. And example after example of elegant wedding cakes in subdued shades of white and beige.

Ketover credits her mother’s artistic inclination and her father’s discipline as an engineer for her approach to designer cakes. The first part of her DNA helps with the inspiration and design, the other with the execution.

She’s also picked up a bit from the Midwest Culinary Institute’s library. “I’ve read every cookbook we have,’’ she admits.

It turned out that the author of one such cookbook, chef Francisco Migoya from the Culinary Institute of America, was her competitor at the American Culinary Federation’s recent Northeast Regional Conference in Boston. “He wrote a lovely book – it’s down in our library,’’ Ketover remarked.

Migoya and Ketover were invited to participate in the ACF’s head-to-head regional competition on the basis of detailed applications they and others submitted. For Ketover it was a first – never before had she entered a culinary competition, much less one this prestigious.

She packed up all her equipment – mixing bowls, whisks, blenders, ingredients, just about everything she’d need besides an oven and a refrigerator -- and flew it all to Boston. Then, with a little help from her mother, she hauled it all from her hotel to the venue the day of the event.

Once there, she had an hour to prepare and present a hot desert for four. She made a Brown-butter almond cake, with passion fruit caramel, rum, blood orange, whipped mascarpone with a ginger-pineapple compote, from recipes she’d developed herself and then refined through weeks of practice. The judges responded by awarding her the top regional prize.

Now she gets to do it all over again, on a national stage. Ketover is clearly excited by the challenge, but seems as well to be keeping everything in perspective.

Said the young West Chester resident: “I just keep trying to learn as much as I can.’’

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