The roaring sounds of organized chaos fill the kitchen at Leesburg High School. As pots clatter, blenders pulsate, and pans sizzle, culinary arts students from five area high schools work frantically to prepare a decadent four-course meal.
The delightful smells of cooked meats and fresh ingredients waft through the air while each team dreams of a first place win. But to claim victory during the second annual Gulf to Lakes High School Team Culinary Competition, they all have to win over a shrewd pair of Orlando chefs with a taste for fine cuisine.
Eyes fixated on the task at hand, the students navigate their stations with deep concentration, fully engaging themselves in this real-life experience of what it feels like to work in a real-world kitchen. Leesburg High School culinary arts teacher and event organizer Chef John Bell lingers on the sidelines, overseeing his team at a distance.
Bell, who is also president of the American Culinary Federation Gulf to Lakes Chefs & Cooks Chapter, explains how the competition and subsequent public tasting is a fundraiser for scholarships that will be awarded to students entering post-secondary culinary schools. “Last year, we raised $2,100,” he says. “This year we are hoping to triple it.” The idea for the cooking competition came about after members of Gulf to Lakes agreed that hosting golf tournaments had become cliché and overdone. Instead, they wanted to do something different that got the students involved and allowed their talents to shine. “This cooking competition is a great way for these students to showcase what they have learned,” he says. “It also offers them a great experience and us an opportunity to share with the public what our programs are about.”
With limited funding from the school system, many of the local culinary arts programs depend on fundraising and their in-school cafés to bear the brunt of keeping the programs afloat. However, part of the difficulty in rounding up funds, Bell puts plainly, is letting the public know they exist. And exposure is vital, Chef Ken Koenig adds, because Lake County is the only county he knows of that has culinary programs in every local high school, a feat he says should make the entire county proud.
“These programs are as important as they get,” says Koenig, who is treasurer of the Gulf to Lakes chapter and department chair of the culinary arts/commercial foods program at Lake Tech. “They are here competing like professional chefs do, so just think of the head start they have. This is truly the beginning of their careers.”
Brett Root, culinary arts instructor at Mount Dora High School, can relate. He first felt motivated to pursue a culinary career when he was just a high school student. “When I took culinary arts at Belleview High School, there was a chef there who inspired me. That’s why I teach,” Root says. “I want to pay it forward.”
For nearly a month and a half, Root’s team of high school seniors has been preparing for this day. “They have been trying different recipes and tweaking them as they go along,” he says. “What we finally settled on is kind of a nouvelle menu where Asian meets American. I told them to use their brain and think outside the box. It’s just been a fun process.”
But, despite the fact Root is keen on making sure his students have fun in his program, he is also very honest with his students about the true life of a chef. “It is a 24/7 job. I never got holidays off, and if I did get time off, it’s still not a break because you’re too busy thinking about all the things you need to do the next day,” he says. “It’s a hard life.”
Nicole Austin, who teaches culinary arts at Eustis High School, believes the culinary profession has enjoyed revitalized interest thanks to the Food Network and popular cooking shows, but it has also been too glamorized. “I think by participating in these programs, the students learn this job is not so glamorous,” she says. “It gives them real-life experience. Plus, I think this kind of class is important because not everyone is going to college. From this, they can learn to cook and become a chef… or at least they will know how to cook for themselves.”
To determine her five-member team, Austin held a mini “Chopped” competition. Then after a few meetings, they settled on an impressive Thai menu for the competition. “They wanted to do something different,” she says and smiles. “I hope they can pull it off. They all feel pretty confident.”
Back in the kitchen, the students start presenting their courses one by one. The judges make their critiques, jotting down their scores as they move from dish to dish. During the quiet deliberations, comments vary from utter satisfaction with taste and presentation to harsh critiques on seasoning and textures. Meanwhile, people fill a nearby room for the public tasting that would decide the People’s Choice winner.
Standing with his teammates, 18-year-old Aaron Shippee from Umatilla High School says he felt his team did pretty well. Next year, he plans to attend Lake Tech so he can eventually work in a restaurant, but his ultimate goal is to become an executive chef. “This program has been so important for me,” he says. “I always had an interest in cooking, but this helped me realize I wanted to be a chef.”
As people take turns eating samples from each school, they write down their scores before turning them in for the final tally. For People’s Choice, Eustis High School comes in third place, followed by The Villages Charter School in second and Leesburg High School with first place. With an obvious home-court advantage, the Leesburg High supporters in the crowd erupt in cheers. Then come the judges’ choices with Leesburg High School coming in third place, Eustis High School winning second, and The Villages Charter School earning first place, making them this year’s champions.
“I think we did pretty awesome,” says 17-year-old aspiring pastry chef Angela Badong, a student at The Villages Charter School. “It was the first time feeling the rush of working in a kitchen and I love it. It was a really fun experience.
Written by Shemir Wiles Photos by Fred Lopez