In TVCC competition, students put new spin on ‘natural foods’

ONTARIO – The menu at this feast wasn’t the ordinary fare.

The two dozen or so items had one thing in common – they had been harvested in the wild by Treasure Valley Community College students.

And they were competing to win the annual “Beast Feast” honor, one that instructor Marcus Nichols tells students is “the most prestigious award you can win as a civilian.”

That may be a bit of hyperbole but there was no mistaking the effort put into the food.

When judges were done smelling and tasting, they selected Mike Nanney’s snow goose with peach salsa as the 2022 champion.

Josey Wilson came in second with her deer-and-mushroom spaghetti, followed in third by Ryan Trenkel’s huckleberry cheesecake.

Nichols has been holding the competition since he joined the TVCC staff in 2008.

He brought the idea from his own college days at Southern Illinois University.

“We had a big cookoff at the end of the year. I thought it was a good idea to continue that,” he said.

Most of the competitors are students in his wildlife management class.

“The contest honestly doesn’t have anything to do with the class other than we’re cooking wildlife,” Nichols said.

In the class, Nichols is preparing students for careers in wildlife management and fisheries work. He teaches about population management, endangered species management, predator-prey relationships and more.

But when it comes to cooking, the students are on their own.

“It has to be something they harvested in the wild,” Nichols said. “Mostly, it’s a bunch of things people hunted or caught.”

The student chefs have the morning to prepare their entries. This year, a smoker, Blackstone griddle and oven were all pressed into duty at the college.

And there are rules, such as “those that bring a dish must sample their wild game before judging begins” and “you should make every effort to bring a wild game/wild grown dish.”

Students are competitive, wanting bragging rights, their name on the winners’ plaque, and some of the prizes brought in.

“I think it’s a pride thing,” said Josey Wilson, the second-place finisher. “We are all passionate people. We enjoy the outdoors. And we’re competitive.”

Wilson described the event as a local “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a nod to a reality TV cooking show.

Wilson used ground meat made from a white-tailed deer and morel mushrooms she picked in the wild to make her award-winning spaghetti.

The judges get their turn, and then students share their cooking.

“The eatin’s pretty good,” said Nichols, who once worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wilson said among her favorites was Trenkel’s huckleberry cheesecake, made with a cupcake and huckleberries he harvested in the wild.

She said the dessert was “absolutely delicious” and “beautifully plated” – presented with flare on wood plates.

Nichols agreed.

“They go all out,” he said. “Some of the settings are pretty nice. It looks like you’re at a nice restaurant.”

Marcus Nichols, wildlife management instructor, holds a wild foods cooking contest for his students at Treasure Valley Community College. (TVCC photo)

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