LAND O'LAKES — Just a few years ago Darryus Lowe was a toddler working alongside his grandmother in her kitchen, learning to bake and mix ingredients. Now the Land O'Lakes freshman has earned a top honor in a statewide culinary competition.
Lowe, 15, claimed first place in the 2013 Let's Do Gourmet High School Recipe Challenge with his recipe for pan-seared pork cutlets wrapped in prosciutto. The competition, sponsored by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association Education Foundation and Let's Do Gourmet, was open to students throughout Florida enrolled in a scholastic program based on the ProStart curriculum; a learning unit that, through classroom lessons, community service projects and placement in restaurant jobs, is designed to prepare students for high-end culinary careers. Each student was asked to devise a recipe consisting of a protein, vegetable and starch, incorporating the Let's Do Gourmet Red Adobo spice into the protein portion of the recipe.
Lowe said that his reason for entering the competition was identical to his motivation for entering the culinary field in the first place: because it's fun.
"With cooking, you can take a dish and make it your way — change up the recipe," he said.
As a small child Lowe learned the finer points of baking from his grandmother, who spent a great deal of time in the kitchen and even assembled a cookbook of her favorite recipes.
"She didn't say why she loved cooking. She just did it," he said. "She taught me how to decorate cakes, which I love."
As he got older, Lowe also enjoyed making stuffed taco dinners for his family and cooking at home with friends. He took his first cooking class at Pine View Middle School. Entering his freshman year at Land O'Lakes High School, he immediately joined the Gators football team as a guard and enrolled in the school's new Academy of Culinary Arts. Recently he joined classmates to prepare a meal for the school's Athletic Foundation Gala, a fundraiser to benefit the school sports programs that featured a special appearance by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Derrick Brooks.
"I tell my students that this is their program. Darryus has taken this very seriously," said Michael Rigberg. He and Jessica Cooper are the teaching chefs who coordinate the Academy of Culinary Arts. "He's very hard-working, tries very hard and is excited to be here."
In late April, Lowe demonstrated the preparation of his pork cutlet recipe, which he served with braised Swiss chard, baby carrots, mashed yucca and tangy barbecue sauce, for contest officials at the academy. He prepared the meal again May 17, when he was honored for claiming first place in the competition — the first cooking contest he ever entered. He also received a set of Let's Do Gourmet spices, two cookbooks and a check presented by Let's Do Gourmet founder and chef Erik Youngs.
Lowe hopes to continue his culinary studies and land a summer job at a restaurant.
"Cooking doesn't feel like school," he said. "It doesn't even feel like work."