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Iron Chef Herndon?

Local culinary arts student raises the bar on professional food preparation.

The day that Herndon High School student Cleophus Peebles decided to enter into the professional culinary arts program at Chantilly Academy, he was more interested in fulfilling an interest than pursuing a career.

"I was interested in cooking, and I like to eat, so I figured it would be a good thing to do," said Cleophus Peebles, 17, who is also a Herndon resident. "I had a slight thought about [a career in the food industry], but it wasn't until I was here at Chantilly Academy that I learned more about the industry and that I really wanted to be a part of that."

The interest became a passion. This April, he was given a gold medal at the Skills USA food preparation state competition.

A contest that judged his creativity and skills at preparing a combination soup, salad, sandwich and dessert meal, Cleophus Peebles stood out above approximately 150 other Virginia culinary arts students to win the award.

"The thing that makes [Peebles] outstanding is the same thing that makes the other exceptional students I have outstanding and that is that he is interested in the work," said Chef Clay Doubleday, his culinary teacher at Chantilly Academy. "He comes to class everyday, he's never afraid to try new and different things and as a result he's creative and puts himself out there."

WHILE CLEOPHUS PEEBLES has just recently begun to explore the professional world of cooking, his interest in the art goes back to his childhood, fishing with his father in the Potomac River and other regional lakes.

"I started with how to prepare the fish and learning what other foods go good with fish, and it just went from there," Cleophus Peebles said.

His passion for cooking with fish and other seafood was further developed by growing up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, which boasts a wide selection of different seafood restaurants and markets, Cleophus Peebles said.

"I really like this area because we are by the ocean and the bay and we do have a good variety of fresh seafood here," he said. "Being by the ocean has had a big effect on me," wanting to specialize in seafood.

The desire to combine his early interest in fishing with cooking did not come as a surprise to his mother, Linda Peebles. Cleophus Peebles's great grandmother had been a cooking teacher and his aunt and uncle who live in southern Maryland are award-winning chefs who own a catering company.

"His passion comes from a long line of cooks and chefs ... that came before him in our family," she said. "It stretches back several generations."

BUT THOSE SKILLS were not developed overnight.

Last year, Cleophus Peebles failed to make the first of three cuts to the state finals in the same contest.

"Junior year I was just pushing off into something new and I didn't really know what to expect" in the competition, he said. "I just kind of went in and I wasn't as prepared as I was this time."

But Cleophus Peebles persisted and continued to learn a variety of cooking and food preparation methods through his classes, and re-entered the competition this spring.

Setting his mind to a task and putting forth the time and effort needed to see it through has been the most impressive part of her son's victory, said Linda Peebles.

"When you see a child set goals for himself and work so hard and to see them come out on top ... it's a great feeling," she said. "As a parent you always tell your kid that he can do whatever he puts his mind to, and its great to see them accomplish those things."

THE CONSCIOUSNESS for quality food preparation that has been building in the United States over the last 30 years has led to an increase in professional gourmet chefs with a passion for their work like Cleophus Peebles, according to Doubleday.

"As we see more people coming through like Cleophus and his classmates, we will continue down that path," he said. "Working with these kids and seeing the future of food preparation here has just been real inspiring."

It's a future that Linda Peebles said she is looking forward for her son to delve into.

"To see this blossom from a passion into a profession, it's very exciting," she said. "With all the attention nowadays with the cooking and the shows on the Food Network, why not?"

The only thing Cleophus Peebles knows that he wants for sure out of his career is to be happy and to do his job to the best of his ability.

"Every human being has to eat, we all have to eat to survive," he said, "but if I can put a twist on that and make something really good ... and really get a reaction from someone?"

"It's looking and saying 'wow, I made that happen, I made that person happy.' And that's a good feeling."