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Team SAIT Cooks the Books, farm to kitchen style

We still compete #hereatSAIT. SAIT Professional Cooking students are competing to defend the title of Canada’s Best Student Chefs in Taste Canada’s Cooks the Books competition.

This time last year, SAIT Professional Cooking students Sarah Ayach and Katie Williams were preparing to compete in Toronto for Taste Canada’s Cooks the Books competition. At this annual event, teams of student chefs from across Canada battle it out to bring their own original recipes to life in under 60 minutes to earn the title of Canada’s Best Student Chefs.

SAIT was invited to compete with their coach, instructor Chef Vanessa Mendoza, for the first time last year. Mendoza was determined to make an impression.

“We trained for four weeks straight and we did seven full practice runs,” she says. “I needed the students to perform at their best under pressure and still manage to have a composed mindset”.

It paid off. Claiming the top spot with their cozy fall dish, duo of Alberta beef with fall vegetables, SAIT is back to defend the title this year.  

Competition adjustments have been made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the winner will be selected based on the submission of a formally written recipe and styled photo of the final dish. But Mendoza isn’t letting the intensity of cooking in a competitive setting get lost.

“Even though we’re unable to travel to Toronto for the execution piece this time, I still wanted my students to experience the excitement and rush of a timed competition,” she says. “Over the course of two weeks, we spent roughly 50 hours in the kitchen training to execute the entire dish in 50 minutes.”

It’s something this year’s student chefs are grateful for.

“I’m a super competitive person,” says Melanie Craighead, second-year Professional Cooking student. “My favourite part is putting all of that preparation and training into a final challenge to showcase all we’ve learned.”

The challenge

The theme for this year’s competition is farm to kitchen. Using only ingredients grown, produced or raised in Canada, student chefs must develop an original recipe and prepare a complete dish representing the theme.

SAIT’s twist: Execute the recipe and have it fully plated within 50 minutes.


Melanie Craighead

Melanie Craighead


Professional Cooking diploma, second year

Fast fact:

Melanie is a trained opera singer with a Bachelor of Music from the University of British Columbia.

Favourite ingredient in this dish:

“The honey we used in the quince puree is from Gull Lake, Alberta — I went there for an end-of-summer vacation with my husband, kids and in-laws. When I eat this honey, it reminds me of sunny summer lake time with my family.”


Sashank PallaPalla foraging sea buckthorn near Red Deer, Alberta.

Palla foraging sea buckthorn near Red Deer, Alberta.

Sashank Palla


Professional Cooking diploma, second year

Fast fact:

With a master’s degree in computer networking, Sashank worked in the field for six years before deciding to pursue his passion for food.

Favourite ingredient in this dish:

“I wanted to include a bit of myself in this dish and went foraging for sea buckthorn in the latter half of the summer. With it, we created a vibrant sea buckthorn gel, which we pureed with Melanie’s honey.”

The ingredients

List of ingredients on map of Canada

The masterpiece

Duo of duck with flavours from the forest pantry

Duo of duck with flavours from the forest pantry

The star of this autumn inspired dish was duck. Melanie and Sashank featured it two ways: as a crispy croquette covered in a parsley breadcrumb along with a juniper smoked duck breast. Complete with rainbow swiss chard, poached celery root, red fife braised sunchokes, quince puree and sea buckthorn gel. 


Monday, Oct. 26: While Team SAIT didn't claim the top spot in this year's Cooks the Books, they battled hard and gained incredible industry experience. Congratulations on competing at a national level — you represented SAIT well!

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With relevant and in-demand programs to develop hospitality leaders of the future — see how SAIT's School of Hospitality and Tourism is a cut above the rest.

We compete #hereatSAIT

SAIT students and alumni compete on local, national and world stages. From the classroom to the top of the podium, a SAIT education takes you places. Learn more about how we compete, and cheer on #TeamSAIT.


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