He stood on the highest step of the winners' platform as the gold medal was hung around his neck and thousands applauded.
"It was awesome," he said. "I knew I did a good job . . . but I didn't think I placed first."
Kaui Stryhn, 21, of Hampstead was in Louisville, Ky., June 23 for the Skill Olympics, an event sponsored by the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, or VICA.
His event: culinary arts.
He placed first in the nation in the two-part contest.
In the first part, the cooks were given a selection of ingredients, a menu and three hours to prepare a four-course meal.
In the second part, the cooks had to prepare four cold platters, including canapes, other hors d'oeuvres, a Waldorf salad platter and a salade Nicoise platter.
Both efforts were judged for taste, nutritional balance, presentation and innovation.
Mr. Stryhn is an apprentice of Rudolph Speckamp, a certified master chef who pleases palates at Rudy's 2900 Restaurant in Finksburg.
"Of course, I'm very pleased that he won," Mr. Speckamp said. "Surprised? No."
He said his apprentice might have had the edge because he had more practical experience than many of the other competitors.
Mr. Stryhn is about halfway through the culinary program at the Howard County School of Technology, where he is working toward the status of certified cook.
Mr. Speckamp explained that there are two career pathways to certified-cook status.
A young cook may study at an accredited culinary school for two years, which can cost $22,000 a year or more.
Or the would-be chef may complete an apprenticeship under a qualified chef, and attend culinary school part time for the academic portion of the course.
The three-year program at Howard County Community College, where the apprentices study one day a week, costs about $1,500 a semester, Mr. Stryhn said.
In either case, final exams are tough.
At graduation, Mr. Speckamp said, the students are given a "mystery basket" of ingredients. They have a limited time to plan, cook and present a full menu.
That test is similar to the VICA contest, where each of the 27 contestants in the culinary arts competition was given an array of ingredients, a range, a table and a selection of spices and condiments.
"We had to take our own knives and our own pots and pans," Mr. Stryhn said. Everything else was provided.
For the four-course meal, the contestants had an hour to consider the menu, then three hours to do the cooking.
They were given basic guidelines: the main dish was to be coq au vin. There was to be a starter of fettuccine carbonara, as well as a salad, a vegetable, a starch and creme caramel for dessert.
Within those guidelines, the cooks were free to express themselves.
"They gave you Red Bliss potatoes and said, 'Do whatever you want,' " Mr. Stryhn said.
He chose to make delicate potato pancakes instead of more predictable fare.
His coq au vin was different, too. He skinned and boned the chicken first -- the only cook in the competition who did so -- which enabled him to present the finished meal artistically arranged in a fan design on the plate.
It also earned a pat on the back from his teacher, who emphasizes cooking in a healthful fashion.
Today's customers are more nutrition-conscious, Mr. Speckamp said, and a good chef must adjust his cooking accordingly. Removing the fatty skin of a chicken before cooking it is one way to do that, he said.
Mr. Stryhn said he was a sophomore in high school, with no interest in cooking whatever, when a school computer scheduled him for a cooking class.
"It ended up, I liked it," he said.
Every week, he said, he would come home and make for his family whatever meal he had been taught to cook in class. "They loved it, and that gave me more confidence" to continue, he said.
He signed up for more cooking classes, and spent a summer working as a dishwasher and then as a cook at Friendly Farm in Upperco.
"That's where I decided I really wanted to do it" for a career, he said.
Through a friend, he got a summer job at a restaurant on Captiva Island, near Fort Myers, Fla.
Immediately upon returning, he began working at Rudy's 2900 Restaurant, where he has been for four years.
As winner of the national VICA contest, he is waiting to hear about arrangements for the international competition, which is usually held in Japan or Australia.
He has also received a $3,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., which Mr. Speckamp called perhaps "the best cooking school not only in the country, but in the world."