Against the best in the world

November 28, 2015


Culinary student Matt Phillips competes in international competition

Matt Phillips is one of the best young chefs in the world – so good that he recently represented the United States during a prestigious culinary competition in Hungary.

But what does he eat when he’s at home? Rice. And he’s happy eating it every day.

Phillips makes the rice the way he ate it growing up in a small village in Thailand.

“It’s northern Thai sticky rice,” he said. “It’s rice that you steam and eat with your hands. You can ball it up. It has a lot of sugar in it. It’s good.”

The 23-year-old, who has been studying at Johnson County Community College for three years, took first place first place last summer in the National Chaine Des Rôtisseurs young chef competition in Las Vegas, Nevada.

That win propelled him to the prestigious international competition in Budapest, Hungary, held in September.

Phillips, who was accompanied to Budapest by Felix Sturmer, JCCC professor of hospitality management, competed against 21 young professional chefs from 21 countries. Phillips was the first JCCC student to participate in that particular international event.

“Based on my observation,” Sturmer said, “he placed in the top third, but only the top three were announced.”

The format at the international competition followed the approach used at the national event. Each competitor received a mystery market basket of ingredients to use to prepare a three-course dinner. In Las Vegas, Phillips received striped bass, rabbit, squab, scallops, shrimp, fatback caul fat and plums. He had 30 minutes to write out a menu, three hours to cook and another half-hour to present.

From sticky rice to gourmet meal

Phillips’ path to the competitions was an unlikely one. He liked cooking with his grandmother while growing up but never thought of becoming a chef. While in high school, he followed his siblings to the United States, where they were attending various colleges. He settled in Hillsboro, Kansas, where one of his brothers was enrolled at Tabor College.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Phillips said. “I didn’t like school at all; that’s why I did the last two years of high school online.”

While finishing his online studies, Phillips took a job in the cafeteria at Tabor College. “I started out mopping floors in the kitchen and then I did dishes and then one day the manager came up and asked if I wanted to do prep – cutting vegetables and things like that.”

From there, he moved to the stove. The manager soon told him that he had a knack for cooking and that he should check out a culinary school.

He did some research and learned about the chef apprentice program at JCCC.

“It said you could go to class one day a week and work the rest of the time in a restaurant. I thought, ‘OK I can do that.’”

Phillips finished the apprenticeship program at JCCC last fall. He still works at the Blue Hills Country Club, where he worked as part of his apprenticeship.

Sticking with school

Despite his distaste for school, he decided – on the advice of a professor  – to stay in school to get a bachelor’s degree in business. He is taking as many classes as possible at JCCC and plans to finish at Ottawa University.

When he gets that degree, he hopes to travel and work with various chefs.  He also thinks about returning to Thailand, where his adoptive parents still live. From here, it takes three days of travel to get to them. It would be nice to live closer, he said.

Then, too, back in Thailand, he would feel most comfortable with the food around him. There, he used to eat sticky rice three times a day.

Professor Sturmer thinks Phillips could find a job “about anywhere in the world.”

“He is one of the most talented, hardest working, best organized and detail-oriented young chefs I have seen at JCCC,” Sturmer said.