DENVER – Chef Rob Marilla is one of eight people in the country to secure a spot on American Culinary Federation (ACF) Culinary Team USA. The team will spend the next couple of years practicing before going head-to-head with the best from around the world in the Culinary Olympics in 2020 – also called the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA) International Culinary Exhibition.
“There were 14 others trying out for eight spots,” Marilla said. “I was lucky enough or good enough, however you want to look at it, to make it.”
But it wasn’t all luck. Marilla, a Denver resident, has been whipping up award-winning creations for the last 20 years, earning medals in 25 of the 27 competitions he’s entered. And though he’s not afraid to try new things, his signature style involves refining and modernizing traditional Southern fare, he said.
In fact, his pork sausage wrapped tenderloin with peach chutney served with sides of sweet potato duette and honey charred okra is one of many piquant plates that wowed judges last July, finalizing his spot on ACF Culinary Team USA.
“The okra is a good example of modern Southern food,” Marilla said of his signature side. “Most people boil okra (making it soft), but I marinated it with honey and olive oil and charred it, giving it a more (crispy texture), which judges liked.”
Though he still works in the kitchen, Marilla has also brought his expertise to the classroom for the last six years, training culinary students at Central Piedmont Community College.
Sam Hart, a CPCC culinary student and Marilla’s “commis” or apprentice, was able to join Marilla in July for tryouts and helped him create and serve items from a fixed menu, created beforehand by Marilla.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Hart said. “It was definitely an awakening of sorts.”
And though Hart wasn’t vying for a spot on the team, the exposure has led him to greener pastures.
“Just being Chef Rob’s commis kind of set the standard – he’s that good,” Hart said. “A lot of chefs asked me how I helped out...I had 12 people give me cards saying ‘Once you graduate you can apprentice with me or work at this restaurant.’”
Hart said part of the reason he and Marilla work well together is because they’re “polar opposites” in terms of style, which allowed them to “really play off of each other’s creativity.”
“(I want) to encapsulate how big of a deal this is that he pulled this off,” Hart said. “He’s the first educator in a while to make that team. … He’s a phenomenal talent and an incredibly smart chef.”
And though Marilla is proud of Hart, he said someone else has also been in big part in helping his achieve success: his wife.
“She puts up with a lot,” Marilla said. “I couldn’t do any of this without my wife.”
From tolerating his 75-hour work week to helping him come up with ways to transport ingredients across the county – including making it through airport security with a 50-pound box of food – Marilla said his wife is there for it all.
As for the future, Marilla and Team USA will be competing in various small competitions across the United States – each in charge of specific menu items or a task. For an upcoming competition, Marilla is working through the menu and logistics of completing a five-course meal, his portion of a practice session that will take place in Utah.
To keep up with Team USA, visit www.acfchefs.org.