MOUNT VERNON — High school students compete in a variety of arenas, academically, athletically and even artistically, and students in career technical paths are no exception. Culinary program students at Knox County Career Center competed for food fame Wednesday afternoon at the local FCCLA culinary competition.
The competition determines which KCCC teams advance as the competition teams, Chef Lance Stalnaker, head of the culinary program, explained to the News. There will be a junior and senior team going forward, he said.
The students all prepare the same menu in the culinary competitions, which in Wednesday’s event was a three-course meal of potato leek soup, sautéed chicken breast in mustard cream sauce with classic rice pilaf and brussel sprouts with bacon, garlic and shallots, as well as a dessert of banana caramel tarts with rum pastry cream.
Stalnaker explained that students are judged with a rubric, which critiques aspects of their cooking, including sanitation, knife skills and basic cooking skills; as well as their introductions and relations with the judges.
“I try to have them do the work to prepare for competition,” Stalnaker said. “They get the menus, the recipes, I have them do everything on their own for a certain amount of time, before they start asking me any questions, because I want them to understand it.”
The pressures of the competition can rattle some students, Stalnaker said, so when he is building his competition team, he looks for students who can put their heads down and work.
“That’s why we do this, because I’ve had students that look really strong, but they might not do well under the pressure,” he said. “There are between 18 and 27 judges just for this event at regionals, so that’s how many people will be standing over them. It can be a lot of pressure.”
Stalnaker explained that he usually takes about half of his culinary students to competition every year.
“I do the same thing with the competition students as the other students, just empower them to do it themselves,” he said. “They don’t need anyone to tell them what to do and just be like robots, I want them to understand what they’re doing. Everything in the curriculum helps them with it, they learn fundamentals and techniques. There’s about 40 content standards from the Ohio Department of Education just in this one competition.”
The senior culinary team of Mya Gonsalves, David Parsons and Anna Hobson are looking to get back to the National FFCLA competition this year, after competing in it over the summer.
These competitions allow the students to win scholarship money, Gonsalves explained. Each of the three students earned $20,000 to Sullivan University from the National FCCLA competition. If the students make it to Nationals again this year, they could each win an additional $20,000, but if they win Nationals or come in second place they could get a full-ride, she said.
“We want to go out and do the best that we can,” Gonsalves said. “There’s a lot of scholarships tied to each competition, so we’re just trying to get as far as we can to help with future schooling and represent the school really well.”
The students individually create a portion of the menu, with one completing the entree, another doing the starter and sides, with the final member focusing on the dessert.
The team works phenomenally well together, finessing each aspect of the menu and communicating well, which Gonsalves said is the key to doing well in competitions.
“We kind of just understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we use that as an advantage,” Gonsalves said. “So we just communicate really well and understand each other well. A kitchen without communication would be a disaster, because you need it anywhere you go. With a hot pan, you would burn yourself, there could be so many hazards without communication. And just knowing what each other is up to.”
Hobson explained that one of the biggest challenges for the team can be timing. The team has a total of 90 minutes to complete the challenge, and communicating the time and not getting rattled under the pressure are two challenges for the competition, she said.
The sanitation aspect of the challenge is the biggest key for FCCLA competition, Parson said, because it makes up most of the score. Sanitation primarily involves preventing cross-contamination, which could potentially make some diners sick, but it also includes keeping an aesthetically clean work station and presenting clean dishes.
“We go to regionals next and we’re hoping to get first like we did last year,” Gonsalves said. “Last year we got second at State, we want to get first this year obviously. We’ll see how things go.”