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Culinary students compete to see who's best in the kitchen, girls or guys

story BY ABBY RINALDI | Chamberlain High Photos by GABRIELLE CALISE | Palm Harbor University High

Over at Team E's station, orange flames erupt from a pan of sizzling bacon. One senior takes a short, sudden breath and his eyes widen. His teammates shout for him to take the pan off the burner as the flames catch the grease and lick at the pieces of bacon. He holds the pan aloft to let the flames simmer down, and after a second or so, places it back on the burner to finish cooking.

A little while later, over at Team D, towering flames envelope another skillet. "Whoa!" comes a collective gasp from nearly everyone in the kitchen.

"Nice fire!" a Team E member shouts.

Fire happens in a kitchen, especially when there are six teams of teenage chefs cooking over 12 burners at once, but these chefs don't let a little pyrotechnics slow them down.

The kitchen at Chamberlain High's Culinary Operations Academy quickly settles back into its focused hum, the occasional "Hot!" and "Behind!" warnings piercing the noise of about 20 senior teammates discussing their creations over the clanging of pots and pans. The student chefs are in the first block of a battle between genders, a boys vs. girls cookoff that's part of their semester practical grade.

These students belong to an academy that has been cooking since 2002. Currently more than 100 participate in the hands-on program, many pursuing more culinary training and careers after graduation.

Real world experience is provided by the campus' Outback Cafe, made possible through a partnership with Outback Steakhouse. The program's dining room, which looks like a regular restaurant, serves school faculty and staff every Thursday. Its leader is chef Erik Youngs, a national award-winning instructor and owner of Cool Gourmet Catering and Let's Do Gourmet, a gourmet seasoning company in Tampa, who was hired to start the program. Chef Youngs, adorned with a short-cropped goatee, pierced ears and multiple tattoos that stay hidden beneath his professional chef's coat, has a sarcastic sense of humor and a life philosophy that everyone should be treated the same.

He is a commanding presence in the kitchen and classroom. Yet often he's in his black T-shirt and jeans, preferring to be the guy in the background who lets the students take charge. The approach seems to work.

"This year's senior class, I'm proud to say, has already earned nearly three quarters of a million dollars in scholarships," Youngs said.

Chef Youngs and tb-two* have teamed up to organize a first-of-its-kind competition at the academy to answer the question: Who is better in the kitchen, girls or guys?

The question has particular relevance given the proliferation of male chefs. Although women make up 50 percent of culinary academies, according to Gateway Gourmet, they only make up 4.3 percent of the executive chefs in the United States. Youngs said being a chef was long considered a blue collar job until Food Network glamorized it. Now, he said, "More women are coming into the field."

Three blocks of students — seniors, juniors and sophomores — are divided into teams by gender. Each team has a station with two burners, access to all kitchen supplies and a "mystery basket" of ingredients, a la the Food Network's Chopped.

Call it Sliced: tb-two*s big, bad kitchen battle of the sexes.

The students were told the day before what ingredients they would be able to choose from so they could plan their dishes and be prepared. Each team of seniors has to prepare 12 plates of food (to serve judges and the school's cafeteria staff) and clean up the kitchen in 50 minutes. The juniors have to make eight plates (for judges and school administrators) and clean up in the same amount of time.

Sophomores only have to make six plates, enough for the judges, and clean up. School faculty and other staff members rotate in as judges for each round, while Times food and travel writer Janet Keeler and two students (male and female) judge all three rounds, all sampling the dishes and ranking them based on taste and appearance.

The black coats

Up first come the seniors, the only grade that has earned the honor of dressing in black chef coats, filing into the kitchen in a loose line to wash their hands, eyes wide with focus, some sleeves already rolled up and a few brows crinkling as the controlled chaos begins.

Dallas Marcellus draws his lower lip into his mouth with concentration. Hands reach for pots hanging on the wall and stretch up to grab tongs and other utensils from ceiling racks. A few pots come loose and hit the ground with loud bangs, adding to the commotion. Amber Talamantez picks up the fallen pans and drops them into a sink, where they rattle around before settling in the large basin.

The seniors are assigned to make breakfast. Sizzling bacon is a strong presence at each station. Biscuits are turning golden brown in the oven. At Team D, Marcellus makes sauce out of berries boiling in a pot. Some of the senior chefs dip spoons for quick taste tests, adding a handful of salt or a sprinkle of pepper or whatever else is deemed missing.

Six ignited burners fill the room with a visible heat. The seniors weave in and out of the labyrinth of student chefs at work carrying pots of boiling water or skillets of hot bacon grease. As students crowd the sink, Talamantez mutters something about everyone being in her way. Emily Morgan gestures feverishly at her teammates as she professes her worry about the biscuits. One chef lets out an uneasy laugh and wipes the sweat off his forehead. Over at Team E, a nervous question arises.

"You think we can finish?"

At the station for Team F, Dale Pyne stirs grits with a bent-up whisk he described as "pretty radical," the last one on the rack when he got there.

"You fail in 15 minutes," Chef Youngs bellows above the din, warning the seniors.

In the industry, Chef Youngs said, guests want their food. This competition was the culinary students' exam, so he implemented some "brutal honesty."

The last 10 minutes are the scariest, Marcellus said. His group has to cut out things they planned to do in order to finish, because Chef Youngs' order to plate the food comes while they are still cooking. Over at Team C, the edge of a hot pan melts Morgan's rubber spatula, the leftover after all the silicone spatulas had been grabbed.

Time is called, and the seniors put the final touches on their dishes. James Martin and Pyne finish. Another team of two, Casey Taveras and Rachel Stevenson, do not. The girls try to stay calm. "When you panic, you don't think straight," said Taveras.

Bacon, and more bacon

The seniors clean up the kitchen and the juniors take the stage. Their instructions: Create a hamburger or chicken sandwich with side dish. Team B, Alyssa Cook, Chrystin Draughn, Talia Gaies and Priscilla Rodriguez, choose chicken, the only group to do so.

Santiago Alonso of Team D slices onions for onion rings, striving to achieve the "perfect cut," which he characterizes as a circle.

"Not like this," he said, pointing with his knife. "It was never really my forte, as you can plainly tell by my awful cutting skills."

Alejandra Rodriguez of Team C mixes spices with her ground beef and weighs the beef for six-ounce patties. Back at Team D, Marc Fernandez fries bacon and then throws it out, leaving the grease in the pan. His team wants the bacon grease for cooking the burgers to give them a bacon flavor. Eventually more bacon is made and stuffed into the patties with cheese. Kelsea Bresnan of Team A forms mashed potatoes and crumbled sausage into pancakes and then fries them on both sides, a dish she'd made for Thanksgiving.

Chefs begin multitasking. Zhi Tang of Team E gives orders while holding three knives with butter on them over a pan of burgers and tending food with his other hand. Team C steams their burgers so they'll cook faster.

Despite the heightened clamor of pots and shouted orders, the students seem fairly calm.

"There's no use in freaking out, because if you freak out you will mess up more," Draughn said.

Time is soon up, and the teams plate their food and add finishing touches. At Team B, Gaies salts a batch of fries. She dumps some salt into her hand, but some also spills into the bowl. Her handful of salt tossed into the trash, she begins mixing the salt in the bowl with the fries.

"Sometimes mistakes are good," she said.

Team D's burgers are still cooking as time is called, but they manage to finish and plate fully cooked burgers before they are to deliver their trays.

"We ended up pulling it together at the end, and worked as a team," Team D's Fernando Gomez said.

"Oh my god, it was stresssssssssssful!" Fernandez added.

Kathia Matute of Team C said that at the beginning the chaos got to her, but that she is a listening leader and made compromises. The pressure, she said, makes things better by motivating students to work harder and give 100 percent.

Round three

By now the kitchen is like a steam room. Chamberlain's culinary sophomores rush in, darting every which way to grab what they need. One student bumps his head on a strainer hanging from the ceiling. One cook working a pan of bacon keeps wiping his eyes. Team F's burner goes out, and they try to relight it. They put in a new can of butane and still the thing won't light. They flip it off and on a bit, and it flares up like torch.

"You still have eyebrows?" one student calls out.

"Yeah, we're straight," Team F replies.

This round is also burger or chicken sandwich, but Team E makes a breakfast biscuit sampler. Todd Prieto got the idea when he was in Texas and had "Better Than Sex Chicken and Biscuits." He decided to put his own spin on it, using a biscuit as a bun for an egg and meat combination.

"You ever go to a hotel and they have, like, a buffet?" asks Malik Roberts from Team E. "Like that, but better."

The only female team sautes chicken cubes, then mixes them with mayo and spices to create a chicken salad sandwich. One side of the table tends the chicken while the other side fries thinly sliced potatoes.

Soon the sophomores wind up and send their dishes to the judges. Sean Johnson and the rest of Team D wrap their burgers in tin foil to conserve heat and so the flavor will hit the judges in the face when they open the foil, Johnson said.

Afterward, the sophomore girls reflect on their experience. "Amazing," said Ishona Martin.

"It was a lot of added pressure, but it was necessary for us to really push ourselves and try to be better than the boys," Alyssa Baker said. "I think that at first we were nervous because we thought we finished too fast, because when (Chef Youngs) came in and (said) '40 minutes' we were like, 'What? We have so much time!' "

"You want everything perfect," Martin added.

"I believe usually girls don't really get along or have a lot of teamwork, but today we had a lot of teamwork and listened and had everybody's opinion," said Dayara Melvis.

The winners

The results are tallied. Seventeen plates have been sampled, 15 of them containing bacon.

The girl teams take each of the three rounds.

"On any given day (the competition) could have gone either way," Chef Youngs said.

The girls' victory is announced over the intercom at Chamberlain High that afternoon before the final bell rings. The girls in the culinary room cheer loudly.

"There's a stereotype that women belong in the kitchen," said junior Talia Gaies, a member of one of the winning teams. "But I didn't necessarily think that meant the girls would win the cooking competition, especially in the academy; we have some really talented male chefs. It was an exam for us, and a really great learning opportunity."

Junior Santiago Alonso, the student wrestling the onion rings, sighs and groans with all the other boys.

On their plates

Feb. 25, 6 p.m.: The fourth annual A Taste of Culinary, fundraiser presented by Chamberlain High culinary academy's parent booster organization. Tickets are $20, with money going for scholarships and other student support. Restaurants confirmed include Datz, the Empress Tea Room, Green Iguana, Hula Bay Club, Johnson & Wales University, the Milk and Honey Tea Room, Outback Steakhouse and Six Tables. Students work with representatives of these business partners to prepare food that guests sample and judge.

March competitions for Chamberlain culinary students:

FCCLA — Family Career and Community Leaders of America, March 1-4, Orlando This student organization focuses on strengthening career learning as well as service. It has qualified for state competition every year since the academy opened at Chamberlain 12 years ago. Service projects this year have included collecting food for the servicemen and -women overseas, working with Feed America Tampa Bay at Empty Bowls, and with Friends of the Riverwalk through volunteering at Smoke on the River.

ProStart, March 5-6 This initiative by the National Restaurant and Lodging Association to educate students in foodservice/hospitality industry sponsors competitions across the country, with winners progressing to a national event. Florida's event is at the Orange County Convention Center.

Who be the judge?

Lisa Pages, Chamberlain High guidance counselor

What makes you a great judge? "I like food" and tons of cooking shows and trying new things.

Favorite part of the event? Watching the students show off their cooking skills and working together in teams.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "Oh, definitely girls."

Jennifer Rosage, Chamberlain High, assistant principal of curriculum

What makes you a great judge? Rosage says that she has judged before and understands the rubric and curriculum, and the skill level at which the students should be.

Favorite part of the event? The fact that the kids were showcasing their skills and pride in winning.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? Girls, due to their attention to detail at this age.

Jonathan Hunn, Chamberlain High's "tech guy"

What makes you a great judge? "I have an exquisite palate."

Favorite part of the event? The free food.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "Girls? Either way it sounds terrible."

Celeste Liccio, Chamberlain High principal

What makes you a great judge? "I like to eat."

Favorite part of the event? Sampling the food.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "Oh, the girls."

Edward Carmack, Chamberlain High alternate education/impact teacher

What makes you a great judge? The ability to be impartial.

Favorite part of the event? The opportunity to try different foods and see students' creativity.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "Guys."

Janet Keeler, food and travel editor for the Tampa Bay Times

What makes you a great judge? Well, great might be overstating things. I eat out a lot and I cook a lot, so I think that qualifies me to judge food competitions. I always take one bite and really think about the flavors and contrasting textures. If I like it, I'll take another to make sure. And If that first bite is okay or so-so, I stop.

Favorite part of the event? It's was really fun to see the contestants' creativity. It was obvious that they know a lot about different types of food and presentation. I must say, though, the bacon was a big draw. I think 15 out of the 17 dishes had bacon in them.

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? That's a loaded question! Interestingly, I found that the dishes made by the girls were presented better. They just looked more appetizing. It's also interesting that in our society, women do most of the in-home cooking but men make the bigger splash in the professional culinary world. Why is that?

Student judges:

Mathew Sprouse, Chamberlain High senior

What makes you a great judge? "I've done food judging in the past (and) because of this prior experience and the fact that I love to cook in my own home."

Favorite part of the event? "Being able to see the hard work and effort put into the food, on their faces, when they brought their plates out; they were relieved that they could finally let off and not stress as heavy as they were to ensure their meals were finished."

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "I think that guys are the best in the kitchen. Why? Well maybe just because I'm a guy. I'm not really sure."

Celine Syc, Chamberlain High junior

What makes you a great judge? "I've been surrounded by food my entire life. It's a passion and I love eating!"

What was your favorite part of the event? "Trying different interpretations of sandwiches."

Who is better in the kitchen, guys or girls? "Definitely girls."

Culinary students compete to see who's best in the kitchen, girls or guys 02/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 10:07am]

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