Culinary major wins national baking contest

Fresno State student Chee Her took first place Saturday in the student artisan bread category of the third annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest.

Her said the experience was better than she imagined and being selected as the winner felt like a dream.

“I’m very happy because I put a lot of work into it,” she said. “I proved to myself that I can do more than what I think.”

The national competition was put on by the Fresno-based California Raisin Marketing Board, which represents nearly 3,000 growers of California raisins. Larry Blagg, raisin board senior vice president of marketing, said the competition was held at the American Institute of Baking International in Manhattan, Kan., which is the largest baking training school in the United States.

Her was the first student from California to ever be a finalist in the competition, Blagg said.

Twelve student and 26 professional finalists competed in six categories, Blagg said. A total of 12 winners were selected. They will each receive a five-day trip to visit the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park and the San Joaquin Valley.

“They get a chance to see raisin production,” Blagg said. “We will actually take them into the factories.”

Her competed against two other students in the student artisan bread category. The competitors were judged on the appearance, taste, marketability and ingredients of their item as well as their technique and execution in making the product.

Her’s entry was called “Pan de Pasas” to reflect the language spoken in the Central Valley and the ingredients that were used, said Klaus Tenbergen, her’s mentor and coordinator of Fresno State’s Culinology program.

Her bread was a combination of sweet and spicy, with cocoa nibs, pepper flakes, Parmesan cheese and golden and natural raisins. The triangular bread offers a variety of colors, with a brown crust, yellow Parmesan cheese shaped like wine leaves baked on the outside, and a dusting of grey rye flour.

The bread took about three hours of hands-on labor to make, but it took a total of 30 hours for it to transform from ingredients into an edible loaf, Her said.

She met with Tenbergen over the summer early in the morning and on weekends to develop her bread formula. Tenbergen said it took about four weeks to create the final formula.

He said helping Her prepare for the competition was a large time commitment and a lot of work. But he said it was worthwhile because he wants his students to showcase what the Valley has to offer to the world.

“I get my joy out of seeing them rise to the occasion—just like bread,” he said.

Her, who was born in Thailand in 1989 and came to America when she was two-years old, said she chose to be a culinology major because she loves to cook. She quickly learned, however, that the major was about learning the science behind what happens to food when it is cooked, rather than how to become a chef.

But her love for food kept her in the program and on the path to a food-oriented career.

“I decided to stay because it is something involving food,” she said. “It was a little more than I expected, but I’m glad I’m here.”

Blagg said competing in the bake-off will help Her get her foot into the baking world, opening up career opportunities.

“It could help make her career if she wants to become a professional baker,” he said. “There are lots of job opportunities that come from something like this.”

Her said she is interested in pursuing a career in product development or the food service industry. She said she would like to develop menus for hospital patients or create fruit and desert sauces for food companies in Fresno.

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