Gerry Sizemore prepared the duck as Felix Santos sliced the celery root for the duck to rest upon. Stephen Shaff worked the beets for the maroon colored mashed potatoes and Kadie Clark whipped up the Green Apple Trilogy desert.
There was little chatter among the budding Tarpon High chefs as they pulled together the three-course gourmet meal while keeping a keen eye on a kitchen timer.
"Fourteen minutes," Sizemore, the team's captain, yelled.
"Yes, chef," the three others responded in unison.
The students' movement Tuesday afternoon at Tarpon Springs High's Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy was precise. Every slice of a green apple and every dash of salt was scrutinized. The students didn't seem fazed; they know the real pressure will come May 1-2 when they represent the state of Florida at the national ProStart Invitational in Overland Park, Kan.
Last month, the academy's gourmet cooking and restaurant management teams snagged first place at the state competition in Orlando. Tarpon's culinary academy was also awarded first place overall at the event that included competitions in edible centerpiece and a waiters relay. There were 44 teams from high schools all over the state.
"I was very happy," Shaff, 17, said of winning the state competition. "It was probably one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life."
Sizemore agreed, but for him, it was also about the scholarship money they won.
"I mean, now I can really think about going to a culinary college," Sizemore, 17, said. "This has been quite an experience, and I never dreamed of winning when the judges called our name."
As a result of winning the individual team competitions, each of the eight team members can take their pick of a scholarship ranging from $10,0000 to Keiser University to a $2,000 renewable scholarship for four years to Johnson and Wales University. They also earned a set of knives and a free trip to the national competition.
"It's pretty amazing," said Tyler Bond, 17, and a junior member of the contest winning management team. "Now there is even more of an incentive with scholarships."
Nearly $1 million in scholarships will be awarded at the national competition.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association in Tallahassee was the sponsor of the state competition and will pick up the tab for the students' trip to Kansas. In 1994, the National Restaurant Association created a two-year high school food service industry curriculum to get students interested in the hospitality industry. Tarpon has had a culinary program since 2002.
"For the students, if you can get them interested in a career early, they don't have to work a day in their lives because they will like what they do," said Laura Rumer, director of school-to-career programs with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "At the same time, the food industry is getting quality trained employees."
At the national competition, the four-member gourmet meal team will have 30 minutes to chop and dice and an hour to cook and plate the meal. They can only use two Bunsen burners and all the food is stored in traveling coolers. No help can be given from the academy's teachers.
And with precision, each team member must cut a whole chicken into eight pieces.
The management team — which consists of juniors Tiffany Naimo, Bond, Clint Harris and senior Michael Giallourakis — must again pitch their concept for the restaurant Mountain Tides to a group of judges.
The members of the team must describe and show examples of everything from the "light blue satin fabric cascading from the ceilings interlacing with each other," to the booths that will have "lights shooting through the fabric giving a warm and inviting feeling" to customers.
The management team had to price from beginning to end every meal item. They even had to determine when food items on their menu were in season for the restaurant that will have lobster and steak cuisine.
There's an executive summary and a floor plan that shows where everything from the tables, to the kitchen's walk-in coolers, to the loading dock is placed.
Once the presentation is done, the management team is then taken into a room for a "critical thinking" session where they have to answer the judges' questions about real-life restaurant situations
"It is a lot of work," Naimo said with a smile. "But it's worth it."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.