Joshua Cathey rifled through a basket containing pheasant, brie cheese, tasso ham, striped bass and hazelnut while inside one of The Culinary Institute of America’s many kitchens. His mind raced to determine how he could combine this vast array of unconventional and unrelated ingredients, but he did not have much time to falter, as a timer on the wall behind him steadily ticked down from his allotted 30 minutes.
Such was the challenge that Cathey and the other chefs competing in the Aramark Culinary Excellence competition faced in July of 2023. Each chef was given their own “mystery basket” of ingredients from which they prepared a four-course menu for a meal that a panel of master chefs judged. Cathey’s menu—what he describes as a “Southern Grazing Board”—sent him home to Hattiesburg with a bronze medal.
The Road to Bronze
Cathey is now the executive chef for all Aramark operations on the University of Southern Mississippi campus, but his career did not begin with culinary school. Rather, Cathey graduated from USM in 2011 with a degree in tourism management. Though this degree has little to do with cooking, it still represents his passion for serving others.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be in the hospitality industry; I just wasn’t sure which area,” Cathey told the Mississippi Free Press. He found his specialization after working as an intern for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. One of his professors headed this internship and asked Cathey about the specific career path he wanted to pursue.
“I told her I was interested in culinary so we settled on the kitchen, and that catering job was my professional introduction to the culinary world,” Cathey said.
While catering for the HCC introduced Cathey to cooking professionally, he has long had a close relationship with working in the kitchen.
“I’ve always loved to cook,” he said. “I always loved watching cooking shows, looking at pictures of food, just seeing how creative people can be and really how they elevate dishes no matter how simple the dish is.”
Cathey inherited his culinary passion from his mother and grandmother, whom he observed cooking from an early age. While he did not realize it at the time, Cathey’s time in the kitchen with his family was important for developing skills necessary for becoming a chef; his family and the space they shared together in the kitchen fostered Cathey’s inquisitive nature from a very young age.
“I was always asking questions, looking in the bowl, tasting different things,” Cathay recalled. “I wanted to know, ‘Why did you do that? Why this powder? Why this pan?’”
After Cathey graduated in 2011 with a specialization in catering, he worked for several different hotels as a catering chef for several different hotels managed by Marriott and the Intercontinental Hotels Group. In 2016, Cathey departed from the hotel industry entirely and became a catering chef for Aramark at the University of Southern Mississippi, a role he held for five years before applying for the executive chef position in 2021.
Within his position as executive chef, Cathey said that he “has a hand in anything related to food or food safety for all Aramark locations campuswide.” With the broad nature of his role, Cathey’s responsibilities range from administrative work—such as food budgets, menu approval and training—to more hands-on cooking responsibilities at large-scale catering events.
“I’ll help with large events, especially during football season,” Cathay said. “It’s really all-hands-on-deck, so I jump in and lend a hand wherever is needed.”
‘A Kid in a Candy Shop’
The road to the ACE competition was a long one—a year long, in fact. In October of 2022, Cathey competed with a pool of chefs from across the South to determine who would represent their region of the U.S. in the ACE competition. After a remote two-round selection process where judges scored competitors on recipes they submitted to Aramark, Cathey moved on to compete at the regional ACE competition at Auburn University.
“This was my first time doing anything like competitive cooking, especially on that level,” Cathey said. “It was intense, but I enjoyed it.” The intensity was not the only aspect of the regional ACE competition that Cathey enjoyed, as the kitchen itself and the vast amount of culinary resources he was provided greatly added to his experience.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Cathey says.
Despite the regional ACE competition being Cathey’s first time cooking competitively, he placed first there and proceeded to the national competition in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he cooked alongside chefs representing various other geographic regions of the country. Though this event is labeled as a competition, each contestant was scored individually, and Cathey’s performance earned him a bronze medal.
Cathey described his experience at the national ACE competition as a positive one, where people with the same passion networked and shared their experiences as Aramark chefs.
“I enjoyed meeting other chefs from different parts of the country,” Cathey said. “You really get to see what everyone has in common. They were like, ‘Oh you’re dealing with that, too—how did you go about it?’ And we talked about problems that may be coming down the pipeline, and we all gave each other heads up and advice and so on.”
Furthermore, Cathey enjoyed working alongside chefs who have been cooking for longer than he has, humbly viewing this competition as an opportunity to learn.
“There were some people there with many more years of experience than I have, so it was really a joy,” Cathey said. “Two of the judging chefs (Stafford Decambra and Kevin Gawronski) were master chefs, and how often do you get to meet and interact with a master chef? The list of those is very short.”
While one may assume that contestants at a culinary competition such as this would be judged entirely on the quality of their cooking, Cathey describes the judging process as more holistic than that, focusing on the overall quality of the chef rather than solely the quality of their cooking.
“Forty of your 100 points just come from what you do in the kitchen,” Cathey said. “They pay attention to how clean your workspace is, if you have good sanitation and hygiene practices, if you’re changing your cutting boards. There were a plethora of things that the judge was actually looking for on top of just the cooking.”
Students at USM with meal plans or who pay at the door may enter The Fresh Food Company and explore the foods that Cathey and others have planned for each day. Learn more about Eagle Dining at usm.campusdish.com.