Contest lets teens show their chops

Students gain skills, awards in kitchen competition

December 03, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

Teen chefs face the competition For two hours they mixed, measured, kneaded and chopped. The assignment: Create a meal of homemade pasta, breadsticks and salad.

Thirty Anne Arundel County high school students took on the challenge Friday at a cook-off at Anne Arundel Community College's Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute in Glen Burnie. The sixth annual event is sponsored by the community college and Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

After taking a tour of the school facility and creating personalized aprons, the students were divided into teams of three and the contest began.

Ingredients were artfully displayed on a long table, similar to the way they are on Iron Chef, a popular competitive cooking show on the Food Network. Students raced back and forth from their cooking stations to the table, gathering their supplies, fresh herbs and vegetables, shallots and garlic, cheeses and eggs.

The teams were given basic recipes but were encouraged to add their own flavors. They weren't entirely on their own - four chefs from the culinary school and three culinary students wandered around the room, offered instruction and gave out hints.

Annapolis High School student LaToya Jayson, who seemed to have some trouble mincing garlic, was approached by Chef Tauret Thomas, who demonstrated a mincing technique using a very large knife.

LaToya got the hang of it quickly, but that skill didn't transfer to the herbs. Thomas returned just as LaToya tried to mince fresh basil leaves.

"You don't chop those," Thomas instructed, as she demonstrated a rolling and slicing technique. "See the difference? They're a lot less bruised."

As Caroline Hollerbach, a Broadneck High School sophomore, began to work floured hands into the ball of dough that would become her team's breadsticks, chef Virginia Olson rushed toward her with a rolling pin.

"Caroline, no," she said, handing her the long wooden cylinder. "Use this."

Earlier, Caroline's teammate Tara Cuffia, a North County High School senior, got the opposite advice as she mixed the ingredients for the pasta dough.

"Don't be afraid to get your hands in it," Thomas told her.

Tara is interested in a culinary career but fancies herself more of a baker. She said she saw the cook-off as a good opportunity to learn new skills.

Other students were there for the competition.

"I've got to represent my high school," said Frank League, a senior from Glen Burnie High School.

Frank and teammate Jose Rangel, a Glen Burnie High senior, were so confident in the deliciousness of their sauce that they offered tastes to anyone who passed by.

"It's money," Frank said.

Besides being fun, the day was a learning experience, the students' nutrition teachers said.

"It's a lot larger scale. Here they have commercial kitchens. At the school we have model home kitchens," said Amber Sarver, a teacher at North County High. "Plus, they get to work with professional chefs."

Winnie Higgs, assistant director of the Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute, said culinary schools are becoming increasingly popular because there are more jobs in the food industry and because of the influence and popularity of cooking programs on television.

The event is a way to inform high school students about the community college program and Tech Prep, in which high school students can take a culinary class and receive college credit.

And working in the commercial-scale workstations with copious amounts of fresh ingredients gives the students a better feel for what a professional chef does.

"There's misconceptions," Higgs said. "It's fun, but it's a science. It's very intense, and you need to be focused. You need a lot of time management and organization in the kitchen."

Though the fledgling chefs were confident as the contest began, many seemed to be feeling the heat as the final minutes ticked by. They worked more intensely and quickly, cooking the last of their pasta, cleaning their workstations and arranging their culinary creations into an enticing display for the three judges.

The first team to put their creation on a plate was made up of Brandon King of Southern High School, Quinten Stearns of Meade High School and Paige Walker of Northeast High. They had prepared spinach fettuccini with a spicy meat sauce, Parmesan and garlic breadsticks, and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette.

Posing for photos with their food spread out before them, they explained why they were finished by noon, when most of the other teams still were scrambling.

"We worked really well together," said Brandon, a 16-year-old junior. "We paced ourselves and cleaned up as we went along."

The team agreed that the experience was better than cooking at home or at their high school.

"We were told to make pasta and breadsticks, but then we were given free rein," said Quinten, a 17-year-old senior. "It's good to see the different creations everyone came up with."

As she walked around tasting the finished products, Thomas said she was impressed with the students' work and with their ingenuity.

"There is a lot of creativity in the sauces they made. Some sauces are spicy, some are sweet," she said.

The dishes included pasta with a white sauce, vegetarian sauces and sauces made with beef or pork sausage.

Teams were judged on their communication, ability to work together, cleanliness and safe food handling. Later, they were judged on the appearance and taste of their meals.

The team of Tara Cuffia, Caroline Hollerbach and Erin Moyer, of Annapolis High School, won first place. Second went to the team of Brandon King, Quinten Stearns and Paige Walker. Branden Johnson of Northeast High, Steve O'Leary of Broadneck High and John Brock of Meade High placed third. The three winning teams were given medals, but all students were rewarded. After their food was judged, they sat down and ate.

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