Winners of Rider Student Top Chef competition net prizes worth $1,200

Winning dish also featured in PJ's Pancake House
Robert Leitner ’17

The winner of this year’s Rider Student Top Chef: Fresh Catch competition was a team of two — a duo who met in third grade and remain friends to this day.

Brittany Cook and Julissa Zayas collaborated on the dish's main focus, salmon, and each contributed a side with their own family twist— string beans with a kick for Cook and garlic-butter white rice for Zayas.

The pair's dijon salmon entree, served with their specialty sides, reeled in more student votes than the scallop and fall spaghetti squash and the kickin’ tangy tilapia over butter angel hair pasta during Rider Student Top Chef on Nov. 15.

The cooking competition is an annual tradition organized by 107.7 The Bronc, the University’s student-run radio station. It offers students the chance to win over $1,200 worth of prizes, including a 55-inch Vizio 4K Ultra HDTV, a Felt's Cruiser Bicycle, gift cards and more.

As in previous years, the winning dish will also be available to order at PJ’s Pancake House in Princeton, West Windsor, and Kingston for the entire month of December, with a portion of the proceeds donated to The Parkinson’s Alliance.

PJ's is one of several restaurants owned by Gretalia Hospitality Group, which was started in 2010 by Rider alumni John and Tino Procaccini and Zissis Pappas. The group now includes several full-service restaurants and specialty eateries.

“Featuring the winning recipe at PJ’s allows Rider students to come out and support their friends’ dish,” says John Procaccini ’97, owner and co-founder of Gretalia Hospitality Group. “PJ’s is a casual restaurant where students and families can enjoy the recipe. The proceeds from the students' dijon salmon dish are going to a good cause.”

As 1,000 students filed into Daly Dining Hall to judge the dishes, Cook grew tense waiting for Zayas to arrive.

“I had gotten there first because Julissa was still in class,” says Cook, a freshman film studies major. “It was nerve-wracking because we both had specific parts of the dish to cook, and the students started asking questions as they came in.”

Despite the tense moment, both Cook and Zayas feel their friendship enhanced the team’s cooperation.

“Being friends definitely helped things go more smoothly,” says Zayas, a double major in human resource management and healthcare management. “But at one point we didn’t think we were going to win because it seemed like everyone was going to other stations for food.”

These instances were not the only adversity the team faced. Just a few days before the cook-off, Zayas was having second thoughts about the competition. The Bronc’s General Manager/Student Adviser John Mozes was able to convince her otherwise.

“I was very, very nervous — so much so that I tried to back out of the competition," Zayas says. "Then John called us and talked to us about the competition — he was very helpful and positive — and he explained that we should not miss this experience due to nerves.”

Rider Student Top Chef is one of many events organized by The Bronc that are designed to give students engaged learning experiences and encourage them to be involved on campus.

"Rider Student Top Chef is the first in a long list of campus traditions 107.7 The Bronc has been able to create over the past seven years at Rider University,” Mozes says. “From Dessert Wars and the Eggscellent Egg Hunt to Cruisin' From Commencement and Scream Screen, The Bronc has become an integral part of student engagement and ensuring our undergraduate students have an unforgettable student-life experience while attending Rider.”

Despite their initial feelings, Cook and Zayas completed the competition and won over $1,200 worth of prizes, which they split amongst themselves, their fellow students and families. But, perhaps the most important part of the competition was their newly found appreciation for Rider’s dining hall chefs.

“This competition allowed us to realize how stressful a job our chefs have,” Zayas says. “Students should really be respectful to our chefs because they go through so much. Being behind that counter, I realized it, and I don’t take them for granted anymore.”

Procaccini, who graduated with a concentration in entrepreneurship and a degree in organization management and organization behavior, sees this partnership with The Bronc as a positive way of giving back to the Rider community.

“The competition not only allows for courageous students to partake in a culinary competition, but it also enables the radio station students to execute a large-scale event,” says Procaccini. “Since Rider is a smaller school, giving back in a way that directly benefits students makes us feel much closer to the Rider family.”