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Culinary Students Sizzle in District Competition

Four medalists now head for States in April.

The Chantilly Academy has a long tradition of producing students who excel in the field of Culinary Arts, and this year's crop is no exception.

Under the caring and inspired tutelage of Chef Clay Doubleday, five students won medals — three of them gold — at the Skills USA district competition, Feb. 3, at Stratford University in Falls Church.

WES OGILVIE, Peter Varkonyi and Cleophus Peebles brought home the gold, with Zack Ridenhour capturing silver, and Toby Younis, bronze. They were among 39 people total competing in District 14, which includes schools in Fairfax and Arlington counties, plus the City of Alexandria.

Vying in the categories of Culinary Arts, Commercial Baking, Food Preparation and Food and Beverage Service were: The Chantilly, Edison and Marshall academies; Annandale, Falls Church and T.C. Williams high schools; and the Arlington Career Center.

"We've never had that many competitors at Districts before, and it was nice to see my students come out on top," said Doubleday. "And it's a good validation for them to expose themselves to being judged by strangers and to have such tremendous success."

Besides that, he added, "They're the nicest bunch of kids I've ever had. As for all the nay-saying adults who talk about 'kids these days,' I challenge them to come here and see what these kids can do. If you give them the opportunity and believe in them, they can succeed."

To be eligible for Districts, 40 Culinary Arts students first competed in an in-house contest at school. The field was then narrowed to 10, with the top two students in each category going to Districts.

And now, four of them — Varkonyi, Peebles, Ogilvie and Ridenhour — will advance to States, April 27-28, at the Richmond Technical Center. Although Younis was third in Commercial Baking, only the gold medalist in her field and in Culinary Arts can go to States. The other two categories allow the top two students to advance.

<sh>Wes Ogilvie

<bt>Ogilvie, a 16-year-old junior who attends Chantilly High, won his gold in Food and Beverage Service. He had to set a table, wait on customers and figure up and present the bill.

"We were given a menu, and they told us what they'd like, and we went back and brought them plates without food," he said. "It's all about using the correct hands to serve, the right silverware, removing the silverware in a certain order and the overall elegance of serving."

Ogilvie said the hardest part for him was keeping calm. He said it's more difficult to not serve actual food because then "it's not in front of you to tell [the customers] what it is." His favorite part was "hanging out with the other guys" while each awaited his turn.

He said the four judges judged his performance on several things, including politeness, how he took the order, which side he stood on when serving and clearing, how he set the table, etc.

Although Ogilvie's a first-year Culinary Arts student, he had experience working at a U.S. government consulate restaurant in Frankfort, Germany, and is currently working at Applebee's in Fair Lakes. He hopes to eventually go to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and someday own his own restaurant.

As for the gold medal, he said, "I was really surprised because Zack beat me in the in-house so, once they called his name for second, I thought, 'Man, I didn't even place.'" Now, said Ogilvie, I know me or Zack will win states — we already told Chef — just because we're the best."

<sh>Zack Ridenhour

<bt>Ridenhour, 18, a Westfield High senior from Centreville's Sully Station community, said he's pleased with his silver medal in the same category. "I'm happy that Wes — someone in my class — won, because we trained for it together." But, he added, "I'm going to take States — States are mine."

Ridenhour said each competitor had to memorize the menu, down to the ingredients and spices used, to be able to answer any questions about the food from the customers — who were actually the judges. They then set the table with the number of knives, forks and spoons they thought were needed.

"You're supposed to put the food down with your left hand, on the left side of the person, and take it away on their right with your right hand," he explained. "It's so your hand and elbow aren't in their face.

The toughest thing for him, said Ridenhour, was the serving "because I knew they were the judges and I was trying to do my best and not mess up with anything." His favorite part was setting the table because he felt confident and thought he did it well.

A second-year Culinary Arts student, he said serving lunch in The Chantilly Academy's café, Wednesdays and Fridays, gave him some valuable experience. "And Chef helped me a lot during that time," said Ridenhour. "If I had any questions, he was very supportive, and that's what got me ready for the competition." Ridenhour, too, plans a culinary career, and likes both cooking and serving.

<sh>Peter Varkonyi

<bt>Senior Peter Varkonyi, 18, attends W.T. Woodson High and won a gold medal for the hot foods portion of the Culinary Arts category. He had to prepare rice pilaf, green beans almondine and a pan-seared chicken breast with a Dijon sauce.

But that's not all. The chicken breast had to be done in a "supreme" or "airline" style, with the bone sticking out at a 45-degree angle. "It's more presentable and French-looking," said Varkonyi. "And it shows your skill at cutting and breaking down the chicken beforehand — which was also part of the competition."

He competed against 12 others. They received menu packets with the list of dishes to make and then had two hours to prepare them all. "And you'd think, with 12 people cooking the same meal, you'd get the same thing 12 times," said Varkonyi. "But you didn't because of the [differences in] creativity, skill level and overall organization."

"If you keep your mind organized, you'll have a good meal," he continued. "For example, if you cook the chicken first, it'll be dry and shrunken. Instead, you have to make a 'misé en place' — French for 'everything in its place' — a list of the order you should do things in."

Varkonyi said chefs who have their ingredients chopped and measured out in advance, for all the dishes they're cooking, are able to focus on their execution and creativity, rather than having to think, "I need a half cup of rice."

"Making the list is the most time-consuming, but the most essential, part of cooking," he said. "If everything's right there, measured out in front of you, you can cook this whole meal in 15 minutes."

AFTER PAN-SEARING the chicken, Varkonyi baked it in the oven and then let it sit for 10 minutes to intensity the flavor, before slicing it. "You eat with your eyes first, and you want to show people how beautiful it looks," he explained. "They can see the great contrast between the nice, golden-brown seared outside and the moist, tender, white meat inside. And you slice it in three, five or seven slices because nature comes in odd numbers."

Readying for competitions, he said, Doubleday tells his students that — regardless of what happens — if they try their best and have fun, they've won. Said Varkonyi: "It keeps you relaxed so you're not tense and second-guessing yourself."

He said he was "floored" to win a medal since he'd never competed in Districts before. As for States, he said, "Our academy has a strong reputation and we want to hold that up. All of us love cooking, but Chef makes us want to cook."

After graduation, Varkonyi will attend the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vt. He's wanted a culinary career, he said, "since I was 7 and my grandpa was a baker."

<sh>Cleophus Peebles

<bt>Cleophus Peebles, 17, a senior at Herndon High, is a second-year Culinary Arts student and won his gold medal in Food Preparation. He had to make a cold, vegetarian, open-face sandwich, plus a salad with dressing, and also had to cut an orange into segments to demonstrate his knife skills.

"They gave us vegetables and bread, and we had to make our own spread," he said. "There were no recipes — we were shocked." But he quickly devised something and went to work.

"I julienned green, yellow and red peppers, had a rye bread and made a spread out of mayonnaise, garlic paste and various herbs," said Peebles. "I remembered what we'd done in class and what combinations tasted good." He also made his offering look attractive because "if it's appealing to you, that's what you want to eat."

He made his salad out of mixed greens with peeled, diced, apples — Granny Smith and MacIntosh "for both tartness and sweetness" — diced carrots, julienned red onions and a red-wine vinaigrette.

PEEBLES ALSO had to make the vinaigrette, for which he combined salad oil with red-wine vinegar and freshly squeezed oranges. "We had to use some of the oranges we'd segmented," he said. "And I added oregano, thyme, celery seed and dill and whisked it all together."

His favorite part was making the salad dressing and the sandwich spread because "I could put my creativity into it and use my senses to decide what would taste appetizing and what else to put in." He also got fancy with the oranges.

"I took some of the orange zest and garnished the top of the salad with it," said Peebles. "And I layered the orange segments around each other in a circle around the salad to display the segments and also garnish the salad."

He was "really surprised" to win the gold medal because he hadn't seen the other competitors before. But, he said, "I knew that, with the skills and techniques I'd learned in class, it should place me in the top."

For example, said Peebles, besides learning which herbs and spices went well together, he was taught the importance of an eye-catching presentation. So to display his salad during the competition, he put a cup on the salad bowl, filled it with the salad and then turned over the cup. "Then when the salad released from the cup, the salad had height to it, like a tower," he explained. "And it wasn't just a flat salad."

Regarding States, he said, "With practice, hopefully, I'll get silver or gold." He, too, plans a culinary career and would like to attend Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, N.C.

<sh>Toby Younis

<bt>As for Toby Younis, the Chantilly High senior won a bronze medal in Commercial Baking. She's 18 and is a second-year Culinary Arts student. For her category, participants had to decorate an already baked cake and make blueberry muffins and biscuits from scratch.

"The hardest part was the time constraint," she said. "We had two hours and 15 minutes to do everything. I love decorating cakes best of all, so I spent an hour with it. I did a pink border on the top and bottom and put three roses and 'Happy Birthday, Lauren' on it."

Trouble was, all that painstaking work didn't leave Younis much time for the rest of her tasks. Still, she said, the whole competition was fun because she's so competitive. The first-place winner in her category had 108 points, second-place, 107; and Younis in third had 104 — just four less than the gold medalist, so it was really close.

"I'm disappointed; I know I could have gotten first if I hadn't run overtime," she said. "But I'll have more competitions in the future for scholarships."

Younis plans to attend Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte for its baking and pastry program, but also wants to go to business school. She currently makes cakes for friends and teachers and, she said, "My end goal is to own my own pastry shop and cakery."