Stefanie Spack seemed destined to be a doctor, breezing through the University of South Florida programs in biomedical science and physics and public health. She had worked three years with plastic surgeons, and in the middle of medical school interviews, she said, "I realized I wanted to make cupcakes.''
"That's odd,'' I said when she told me that story.
"My mother thought so, too,'' she replied.
She had always enjoyed cooking with her mom, a banker in Tampa. "She loved savory; I did desserts.''
But this, clearly, was more than a passing fancy. Once she determined her passion, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami, which is how she came to be standing in her chef's hat in the kitchen at the Academy of Culinary Arts at Land O'Lakes High on Thursday night, high-fiving three of her students.
"We did it!'' hollered Amanda Zito, who teamed with fellow seniors Bailey Bryant and Kyle Kangeter to bring a championship to Fivay High in Hudson. This had nothing to do with athletics or the Brain Bowl, but rather impressing judges with baking prowess and imagination.
I happened to be one of those judges, although hardly as qualified as the five chefs on the panel. They can talk about food as a science, identify subtle ingredients. I just know what I like, and of the desserts prepared by five culinary arts teams, Fivay's "Bippity Boppity Boo'' blew me away.
Perfect score — 50 points based on taste, presentation, degree of difficulty and how the dessert relates to a Cinderella theme.
Why the theme, you ask? Because this competition, the third annual, was designed to select the dessert that will be served at the Pasco Education Foundation's signature fundraiser, the Cinderella Ball, on March 9 at Heritage Springs.
Equally important, it showcases the Pasco school district's commitment to career academies, technical education programs offered at all the upper level schools designed to give students specific training and marketable skills. In a few weeks, for instance, a new automotive service center will make its debut at Wesley Chapel High.
But Thursday night, culinary arts held the spotlight. Students from Marchman, Anclote, Wiregrass Ranch, Land O'Lakes and Fivay prepared their sweet concoctions, having already defeated baking teams at their schools. This kept the finals manageable, compared to last year when we had to sample 12 desserts and nearly fell into sugar shock.
The Fivay team edged the runners-up from Anclote, who made an amazing combination of pecan pie, cheesecake filling, lemon curd and toffee and chocolate bark. This dessert matched Fivay's pumpkin spice cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting and vanilla bean glaze, but lacked the Cinderella theme element. The Fivay team featured a Fairy Godmother's wand (white chocolate) on the plate, sending out waves toward the pumpkin and its four wheels made of orange lace tuile. (Yes, I admit, I had to ask for a definition of tuile — and how to spell it.)
Friday morning I called Spack (actually, Spack-Adams since November, when she married guitarist Joel Adams) to learn more about her program. She taught biology last year at Land O'Lakes High and moved to Fivay to take over culinary arts and help prepare the school for a hospitality and tourism academy.
She has already made a big impact. Recently, Spack-Adams, 26, secured a sponsor for the school's culinary program. Chick-fil-A at the Gulf View Square mall will help students learn how to interview, provide customer service and be reliable employees.
Last Thanksgiving, her students cooked dinner for homeless folks staying at the ROPE Center. And just before Christmas, they created an 8- by 10-foot gingerbread village and put it on display at the school for two weeks. "I had students stay late at night because they were so excited to work on it,'' Spack-Adams said. "I felt the same.''