Five questions with a chef who can compete

Josh Wilkins

ISU Dining chef de cuisine Josh Wilkins. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

ISU Dining's chef de cuisine -- or executive chef -- Josh Wilkins won the 37th annual Taste contest Jan. 22 hosted by the Iowa Pork Producers. Wilkins beat eight other chefs from across the state in a competition to see who could prepare the best boneless pork loin entrée. He won the competition -- and the People's Choice award -- for his pork braciole, an Italian dish featuring pork loin stuffed with parmesan spinach on a bed of parmesan polenta, a cornmeal-based dish with the consistency of porridge. Wilkins braised the pork loin in a tomato sauce and drizzled it with a basil pistou.

Name: Josh Wilkins

Position: Chef de cuisine, ISU Dining. He manages and directs the culinary program for the student dining centers.

Experience: Wilkins, a Des Moines native whose wife, Jules, works at the ISU Foundation, has worked in fine dining in New York, New Orleans, St. Paul and, before coming to ISU, as a corporate chef for K-12 private schools.

Years at ISU: 1

He talked with Inside about his victory and how ISU Dining strives to please thousands of students every day.

Why did you enter the contest?

I had never done a cooking competition, but my sister sent me an Instagram link and said I should do this. I have made the dish before in a couple of restaurants. When I lived in New York, I worked in a small Italian restaurant where the family did homestyle Italian food.

I had to do four plates for the judges and 300 one-ounce portions for the tasting reception on the same day. I was really proud of what I put on the plate, and as the tasting reception went on, I started to get some really good feedback and noticed people coming back a second and third time.

What does the victory mean for ISU Dining?

I think some peoples' perception of collegiate dining is not what it is nowadays. When I was in college it was very much cafeteria lines with chicken tenders and fries. I was happy to show that the quality of food we put out for the numbers we do is very chef-driven. The competition included some prestigious restaurants and smaller high-end restaurants, so it was nice to show we do high-quality food. I had a lot of support from ISU Dining to use Friley Hall on the weekend when no one was there. There also were members of ISU Dining at the reception to support me.

What is it like preparing menus for all those students?

When you're serving about 10,000 meals a day, you have to appeal to the masses. There are a lot of palates, and the cultural diversity on this campus is awesome -- so we get to do a lot of cuisines from all over the world. I menu plan by the semester, so it can be challenging, but I have a lot of information that I pull from. We also have several partnerships on campus and I build those options into my plans. Our turkey comes from campus and in the fall we get onions and peppers directly from the horticulture farm.

With the amount of options we have available at the dining halls, it's easy for students and other guests to self-manage. The menu management team does a great job when it comes to labeling and maintaining an online database for dietary needs like gluten free or allergies. We want it to be easy to manage your plate.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When the dining room is quiet, there is an instantaneous sense of accomplishment because people don't talk when they like the food and are eating it. 

We also do special events in the dining centers, which are a lot of fun for me. For example, this fall we did one with a group of students from Africa. It was nice to use their recipes.

Could we see your winning dish on campus?

It is something we might use for catering or special events.


Josh Wilkins winning dish at the Taste competition was a pork braciole. Submitted photo.