Senior Jyaira Moore had some unusual things in her backpack one morning last week when she boarded the school bus. • Nestled among the notebooks and pens were small bags and packages of shrimp, uncooked rice, spicy sausage, corn kernels, parsley and seasonings, plus ice packs to keep the perishables cold. There were three blue-tinted, stemmed glasses, carefully wrapped so they wouldn't break on the commute to Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School. • The ice packs were especially important because Moore catches the bus at 5:05 a.m. in St. Petersburg for the nearly two-hour ride to school. The backpack's contents were destined for a very important dish. On this day, she was one of nearly 80 students competing for about 25 spots on the school's competitive culinary teams.
Moore's spicy shrimp and sausage rice entree — she never settled on a name — arranged artfully in the blue glasses impressed the judges as much as her work habits and personal presentation. She looked professional in her chef's coat, following the rules for no fingernail polish and no dangling earrings. High points for a tidy workstation, too.
"Everyone is a little jittery this morning," Katie Foltz, culinary academy director, said. "But we aren't looking so much at the final product but how they got there." Energy, drive and passion also play a part.
The winning cooks will land on teams that compete in Pinellas County culinary competitions, plus in the ProStart state championship in Orlando and the SkillsUSA competition. Three years ago, Jacobson won the ProStart event and went on to compete at nationals in Kansas City, Mo. Last year they came in second. Besides bragging rights for the Tarpon High magnet program, students have the opportunity to win scholarships to such schools as the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales.
For last week's competition, the students had an hour to produce a restaurant-quality dish that was then judged by their instructors, Foltz, Cathleen Ryan and Gui Alinat, all classically trained chefs who have worked at some impressive restaurants. Guest judges were former Jacobson student Robby Tanner, who is headed to the CIA soon, and cookbook author and nationally known barbecue expert Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe of Lakeland. They weren't exactly Top Chef tough — there were no f-bombs flying — but the judges weren't easy on contestants.
"Why didn't you make some guacamole?" Foltz said to a student who turned out a pretty mean plate of nachos.
"You had time to make a side dish," she said to another aspiring chef who brought a lonely — but very well-cooked and seasoned — chicken cutlet to the judges' table.
Students were asked what inspired their dishes. They were reminded to sear the presentation side of fish and chicken first, especially when they didn't. The judges were disapproving when tomatoes weren't peeled in chopped garnishes. "You know how to make a tomato concasse. You should have done it," an instructor said. (Tomato concasse is a uniform dice of tomato that has been peeled and seeded.)
The students took the criticism in stride. Most of them knew as they walked their entries to the judging table that something might be amiss. They were not surprised to learn that their fish or chicken was a few minutes past perfect doneness or that a sauce would have brought the entree together better.
Still, the judges didn't go all Gordon Ramsay on the students. Junior Spencer Lane was praised for his "amazing" duck breast with cranberry orange sauce on a bed of radicchio. "Knife cuts look good," Foltz said. "Did you let it rest before cutting?" Lane nodded. "Good."
Another junior, LaVanté Pope, got forks up for his Jamaica-inspired chicken with coconut rice. "Excellent flavor and nice presentation."
Jordan Whidden was one of several brave freshmen who competed. It was just the third week of school, and the first-year students hadn't even cooked in the vast commercial kitchen yet. Whidden tackled a tiramisu, whipping the custard by hand in the very warm kitchen. Things were looking good when suddenly the mixture "broke," the fat separated from the solids and became a lumpy mess. Disaster.
"Oh, no. Oh, no," she said. The heat from the nearby stoves likely caused the collapse, so Whidden was whisked into a walk-in cooler where she muscled the custard back together. She brought her tiramisu to the judges last, tired and triumphant at the same time. She was praised for keeping her cool and persevering, even if the tiramisu needed a few hours in the refrigerator to set up. It still tasted pretty darn good.
The competition, and in fact the four-year culinary program, helps prepare students for jobs in the culinary industry by simulating the commercial kitchen experience. Some of the older students are already working in restaurants and at other food ventures. Many want to go on to culinary school and hope to have their own restaurants someday. Freshman Sarah Henricksen just might be on her way with her homemade fettuccine with lemon caper basil sauce. The judges agreed they would order that anywhere.
Watching several rounds of the competition clearly showed the progression from first-year students to seniors. Next year, Whidden will know to pick a cooler spot to make a dessert. Dangling earrings will be stashed in lockers before hitting the kitchen (they can fall off into food or get caught in equipment). Hair will be neatly tucked under chef caps. And painted fingernails will be covered by gloves.
As they progress in the program, they'll learn to make well-conceived and nicely plated dishes the way senior Angela Gerasimenko did. Her no-bake brownie topped with raspberry mousse was pretty to look at as well as being tasty. It was formed in a ring and garnished with a perfectly formed quenelle of hand-whipped cream, a fresh raspberry and a mint leaf. (The judges didn't know that a raspberry sauce was left off because it made the mousse sag a bit.)
After three rounds of competition, the judges holed up in an office to pick the teams. Who did the best? Who will be dedicated to the three weekly after-school practices? How well can they work together? Who can overcome their nerves? And who will replace edible-arrangements master Aubrey Preseau when she graduates next year?
Who makes it to the final teams will be determined over the next few weeks as the competitors slice, dice, saute and master that tomato concasse in Jacobson's kitchens, all the while keeping an eye on the first-place prizes. And perhaps a culinary school scholarship.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.