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Culinary Students Sizzle in District Competition

Four medalists now head for States in April.

Woodson High School senior Peter Varkonyi was among three culinary arts students from The Chantilly Academy who won gold medals at the Skills USA district competition, Feb. 3, at Stratford University in Falls Church.

He and the other three medalists from the academy were among 39 people 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 Chef Clay Doubleday, who heads The Chantilly Academy's Culinary Arts program. "And it's a good validation for them to expose themselves to being judged by strangers and to have such tremendous success."

"They're the nicest bunch of kids I've ever had," Doubleday said. "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 — Peter Varkonyi, Cleophus Peebles, Wes Ogilvie and Zack Ridenhour — will advance to States, April 27-28, at the Richmond Technical Center.

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 intensify the flavor before slicing it. "You eat with your eyes first, and you want to show people how beautiful it looks," he said. "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.

"It keeps you relaxed so you're not tense and second-guessing yourself," said Varkonyi.

He added that he was "floored" to win a medal since he'd never competed in Districts before. "Our academy has a strong reputation and we want to hold that up," Varkonyi said, looking to the States competition. "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."