Some local culinary students are going head-to-head to see whose dish will be added to a local restaurant chain’s product line and sold at grocery stores across Alberta.

The chefs-in-training are students in NAIT’s culinary arts program. They had to create Asian-inspired dishes as part of a unique cooking competition on Monday.

As many as six dishes could be added to Tokyo Express’ menu and be sold at grocery stores under the Tokyo Express Tetsu Chef banner, across the province.

“It’s a great mentoring for them but it’s going to look really good on their resumes,” said Dean Belanger, business development manager for Tokyo Express.

“We’re going to look at the best dishes and what we think works. If we find four, there will be four winners, if there’s only two, we’ll go with two.”

Some of the culinary students have experienced competition before, but what’s an extra challenge this time around is that the dishes are cooled down and then reheated before the judges taste them.

“It’s really the main premise, the main curveball in this competition when they’re looking at shelf-life, how the proteins reheat, all those kinds of important factors that are really going to play at whose going to come off on top,” said NAIT instructor Jason St. Laurent.

“It’s a really neat opportunity for the students.”

It’s a new approach to product development for the company and experts say it’s a strategy that will attract new customers.

“It’s a fantastic idea. Companies typically spend tremendous amount of dollars on research and development so for a company like Tokyo Express to embrace NAIT, which is a top culinary school throughout western Canada, and to serve up a bit of a competition for the students, it makes an emotional connection with NAIT,” said Paul McElhone, executive director for the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing.

“It also makes it sexy for research and development, and it's fiercely competitive. These are the young and upcoming chefs in Canada and around the world. To me it makes perfect sense that they would try such a maneuver to try and help their research and development.”

For students, the competition offers a unique opportunity to get their name out there – literally, as the winning chefs’ names will be printed on the label of the winning dishes.

Competitor Nick Thompson hopes his sauce will set him apart from the rest of his classmates.

“It’s all in the sauce. Your sauce is your main money-maker,” Thompson said.

“Everyone can make a Mongolian stir-fry dish but your sauce is going to separate you from everybody else.”

Belanger said the company chose to go the culinary student competition route because it wanted a different way of developing new products.

"We just decided this time to do something different, really get back to basics and just throw it out there and say ‘what do you guys think?’ rather than just a few people sitting in an office saying ‘well lets try this,’ so, this is nice,” Belanger said.

Five judges will decide on one or more winners in January, and will select anywhere between one or six dishes.

Students whose dishes are selected will each win a $500 cash prize. Of the dishes selected, a winning dish will be announced and that student will win an additional $500.

The company says it will likely take a few months after winners are chosen, to put the recipe into production and onto store shelves.

The dishes will be sold under the Tetsu Chef line at Safeway, Save On Foods, Sobeys/IGA and Wal-Mart.

With files from Laura Lowe