Francesca Rufo, a line cook at The Marine Room in La Jolla, has been chosen as one of 10 up-and-coming U.S. chefs to compete this fall in the semifinals of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition.
If the 22-year-old Tierrasanta resident wins at the U.S. regional contest in October in New York, she will move on to the global competition next year in Milan, Italy.
If Rufo makes it that far, she will have a winning edge. Her mentor for the third annual world competition will be Gavin Kaysen, the former San Diego chef who has helped coach U.S. teams for the international Bocuse D'Or competition in France. This year, the U.S. team won the Bocuse D'Or championship for the first time ever.
Rufo graduated from the Art Institute of California San Diego culinary program in fall 2016. She has worked at the Marine Room since June 2014, working her way up steadily from a position in the pantry.
The contest is open to chefs under the age of 30 with at least one year of restaurant kitchen experience. The head-to-head competition involves the live preparation and presentation of just one signature dish before a panel of judges.
Rufo grew up in the Sacramento area where she said she learned to cook from her Japanese grandmother. She moved to San Diego to attend culinary school and thanks the chefs at the Marine Room for helping her fine tune her signature dish, called "Bronzino, Riding the Wave."
Rufo has competed in several culinary contests but was surprised and thrilled when she found out she'd made the semifinals for the S.Pellegrino contest. She said she looks forward to competing and a future career as a chef.
"I like cooking tasty food and making food look really nice," she said on Tuesday.
Rufo applied to the contest at the suggestion of her two mentors, Marine Room lead executive chef Bernard Guillas and chef de cuisine Ron Oliver.
Guillas, who is one of just two French Master Chefs in the county, said he and Oliver felt Rufo had the qualities to win a contest like this.
"She's very talented, she's very focused. She's very progressive when it comes to techniques. She's always learning new things and bringing them back to us," Guillas said. "Let me put it this way, within the next five years she will have a restaurant of her own."
Guillas said he and Oliver will continue mentoring Rufo over the next six weeks to perfect not only her signature dish but also how to problem-solve every possible scenario she might face in New York.
Guillas competed in many competitions as a young chef in France and said the quality of your dish means very little if the judges are seated so far away from the kitchen that the dish is cold or the sauce has broken by the time it arrives at the judging table.
The most important thing, Guillas said, is that he hopes that Rufo has fun and enjoys the journey. And if she wins, it will be an honor not only for her and The Marine Room, but also for the local restaurant community.
"We want her to win," he said. "It's so good for San Diego and our culinary scene. A young chef winner from San Diego can make a very big impact."
The 10 U.S. semifinalists - who hail from Chicago, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, New York and other cities - were selected from more than 2,000 applicants by a panel of trainers from Italy's ALMA cooking school.
The winner of last year's S.Pellegrino Young Chef global competition was an American, Mitch Lienhard, who is the chef de cuisine at Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos.