When Guillermo Quezada and his teammates from Leto High School faced more than 45 teams in a state culinary competition last year, they had one hour to prepare a three-course meal. • "It was the fastest hour I've ever been through," said Quezada, 18. "Every second literally counted." • They made egg yolk ricotta cheese ravioli, pan-seared grouper with potato cakes and spinach and mushrooms, and chocolate cake with hand-cranked vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. • The gourmet meal earned the team first place at the 13th annual Florida ProStart Culinary Competition in Orlando in March. Quezada won the Student Top Chef Award. • "I knew I did a good job, but I was just doing what I love," he said. "It's a good feeling knowing that people like what I do."
Quezada and his teammates didn't just impress the judges. They caught the eye of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Quezada was featured on an episode of Emeril's Florida, which first aired on the Cooking Channel last week.
Teams were alerted before the competition that a crew from the show would be there, and planned to return to the winning schools to feature them on the show. They shot a segment on Quezada, and got footage of him walking around campus, going to his classes and cooking. It was all a little weird, he said.
"I didn't want to mess up or trip on camera," he said. "But it was a fun experience."
Lagasse met with him and some of the other culinary students. He answered their questions and made them feel comfortable, chef instructor Debra Hladky said.
"He was just a regular chef interested in these kids," she said.
For part of the segment Lagasse sat down on camera with Quezada.
"It was surreal," Quezada said. "With him asking me questions it was like, 'I should be asking you questions.' "
Lagasse asked him about growing up in the Dominican Republic and his love for cooking.
Quezada came to the United States with his mother and older sister when he was 6. He first learned to cook by watching his mother teach his sister, mostly Dominican dishes like rice, beans and chicken.
It was when he first got into the culinary program, after researching it in middle school, that he decided he wanted to stick with it. He learned about new kinds of foods, like Asian, Italian and French, and how to make risotto and gnocchi. He learned to like fish, calamari and different kinds of vegetables.
"It's a whole new world of cooking opened up to me," he said.
Quezada, a senior, will attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., after he graduates. He wants to intern at good restaurants, learn from the best and someday open his own restaurant.
But first the Leto High team has to prep for the next ProStart competition in March. They practice once a week after school, until 8 or 9 p.m.
"They know it's a team effort. Everyone contributes equally," Hladky said.
None of the students missed a practice last year, she said, and so far nobody has missed one this year either.
Prepping for competitions is a lot of work, Quezada said. Their performance at competitions can impact not just which awards they win, but which scholarships they get or what schools they go to, he said. After winning the ProStart state competition, the team placed 11th out of about 45 teams in the national competition. The team also won the national Family, Career and Community Leaders of America Culinary Arts Competition last summer.
Students try out to be on the competition team. The students who don't make it often come to the practices to watch and learn. It's not just about skill, Hladky said. It's about determination.
"It's about their desire, because I can teach them the skills," she said. "I can't teach them the passion. They have to have that."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.