It takes a lot to be a state champion, and students from The Chantilly Academy's Culinary Arts program definitely have what it takes.
THEY PROVED it in the state Skills USA competition, April 28, in Richmond, coming home with three gold medals and a silver. Now, two of those gold medalists will vie for top honors in the national contest, June 24-27, in Kansas City.
"Obviously, I'm incredibly proud of them, said their instructor, Chef Clay Doubleday. "For them to go down there and walk away with the highest awards they could speaks volumes about the seriousness with which they approach their life — the effort they put into it and their education, in and out of school."
Garnering the gold were Cleophus Peebles, Peter Varkonyi and Zack Ridenhour; Wes Ogilvie received a silver medal in the same category — Food and Beverage Service — in which Ridenhour won a gold. The event was held at the Chesterfield Technical Center in Richmond and competition was stiff.
"In our category at states, we competed against 10 academies," said Ogilvie. "And these 10 had previously competed against 10 other academies to get there."
<bt>Demonstrating his imagination, talent and flair, Cleophus Peebles won a gold medal in Food Preparation. The 17-year-old senior at Herndon High is a second-year Culinary Arts student at Chantilly.
At states, he had to make gazpacho — a cold soup; a triple-decker sandwich with ham, turkey and a BLT; a side salad with sesame-seed vinaigrette, orange segments and applies; and a dessert made with pound cake, heavy cream and strawberries.
"The gazpacho had tomato juice, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and red and green peppers," said Peebles. "And I cut the sandwich diagonally and displayed it to show what was inside."
For the salad, he put all of its components into a bowl and then flipped it over onto a plate so the salad would have some height and retain its shape. He cut the apple and orange into segments to illustrate his prowess with a knife and then placed the segments around the salad so it would look attractive.
The dessert, however, was Peebles' crowning glory and showed his originality. "I cut the cake into six slices and cut a hole out of each with a biscuit cutter," he explained. "Then I spread whipped cream on the discs and put a layer of strawberries on the tops."
He repeated those steps over the first layer so, at the end, he'd have three layers of yellow cake stacked up like strawberry shortcakes. "Stacking things up catches the eye," said Peebles. "And I put whipped cream on top with a strawberry fan."
Although he thought he had a chance of placing in the contest, he initially had some doubts. "But Chef told me I had the skill to take the gold," said Peebles. "And it just felt amazing that I won. I had to keep myself humble, but it feels good to win."
Unfortunately, there's no food-preparation category at nationals, but his gold medal at states means Peebles will go out on top. Plus, he's gained a wealth of knowledge and experience from his Culinary Arts class at Chantilly.
"Being in this class is amazing and hands on," he said. "We learn to produce and manage food, and we do it for the cafe for the teachers, twice a week, so that's a big advantage. Chef is awesome, and the academy gives us a push into what we want to experience later in life.
After graduation, Peebles hopes to attend Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and plans a career in the culinary field.
<bt>A senior at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax, Peter Varkonyi, 18, captured a gold medal in the hot foods portion of the Culinary Arts category.
"It demonstrates your skill in the preparation and execution of hot materials, such as an entree or soup," he said. "At the competition in Richmond, I was asked to prepare a rice/chicken-broth soup with a tomato conassé."
That type of tomato entails scoring an "X" on its bottom, boiling it 30-40 seconds and plunging it into ice water so the skin peels off easily. Then it's cut in half and its seeds are removed so what remains is a skinless, seedless tomato.
For his entree, Varkonyi cooked Chicken Florentine — a supreme breast cut with the bone sticking out at a 45-degree angle to show his skill at cutting and breaking down the chicken. It rested on a bed of sautéed spinach and was topped with sliced tomato and grated parmesan cheese.
He also made a tournede of red potato. "It's a difficult, seven-sided, barrel-shaped cut with a paring knife, to display your knife skills," explained Varkonyi. "The potato was roasted in the oven, and the vegetable was Green Beans Almondine."
He attributes his victory in great part to his organization — which, at first, gave the judges a few anxious moments. That's because he didn't start to cook until he was good and ready — literally.
Varkonyi is a firm believer in creating a 'misé en place' — French for 'everything in its place' — a list of the order in which he'll do things. Chopping and measuring all his ingredients in advance, for every dish, frees him to concentrate on using them correctly and creatively, without interrupting his flow for prep-work.
SO AT STATES, said Varkonyi, "I didn't start cooking 'til halfway through the [allotted] time because I had to have my 'misé en place' all ready. It was a three-hour competition and, at one hour and 30 minutes, a judge asked me when I was going to start cooking. But I wasn't going to do it until I felt comfortable and didn't have to run around for each ingredient."
Once Varkonyi began cooking, however, he finished with lightning speed. "I was done within 30 minutes and was the first to present my entree and soup," he said. "Basically, I had an hour left."
Thousands of people attended the awards ceremony that night in the Arthur Ashe Coliseum, and Varkonyi was happy and relieved to win. "I have a much bigger road ahead of me at nationals," he said. "But I feel pretty confident that, if I can be on target and perform my best, I have a very good chance of winning."
After graduation, he'll attend the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vt., and he says the staff there is thrilled that he won at states. "If I win nationals, I get a full scholarship from them — $60,000 — so it's intense," said Varkonyi. But even if that's not the case, he said, "The stuff I'm learning [at these competitions] makes it all worthwhile."
<bt>At district level, Westfield High senior Zack Ridenhour, 18, of Sully Station, won a silver medal in Food and Beverage Service. But at states, he got the gold.
Each contestant had to set a table, greet and seat guests — the three judges, take their order, bring them food and maintain the table — replenishing items as needed.
Ridenhour said the hardest part was overcoming his nervousness: "We all knew what we had to do and how to do it, but I had to relax and control my butterflies."
Students had 30 minutes to memorize a menu — and they were forbidden to serve anything that wasn't on it. So of course, he said, the guests would ask for things not on the menu, such as a glass of milk, and he'd have to say, "I'm sorry; we don't carry that."
Ridenhour's favorite part was setting the table. "I can do it well and pretty quick so I can critique it and make it better," he said. "We decided what and how much silverware to use, and we could choose our own napkin folds."
He entered the event confidently and thought he had a good chance of winning. "And luckily, I did," he said. "But when they called the winners' names and I didn't hear mine, I started to get worried."
Soon, though, both his and Ogilvie's names were called and, said Ridenhour, "I was so excited and so happy. We both got up, hugged Chef and went on stage together to get our medals."
Ridenhour likes both cooking and serving and, not surprisingly, plans a career in the culinary field.
<bt>A Chantilly High junior, Ogilvie, 16, won a silver medal in Food and Beverage Service. He said the toughest thing was memorizing the menu.
"They gave us a big, long list and certain things to look out for that customers might ask," he explained. "So we had to be able to answer questions such as, 'Where is this chicken from? Where does the cream come from?' They only asked two or three things off the list, but you had to memorize the whole thing."
At the end, Ridenhour had 113 points and Ogilvie had 109, but Ogilvie was pleased with the outcome. "I was happy that Zack won because he's a senior and I have another year to go and can compete again," he said.
Ogilvie said the whole day of competition, plus waiting for the results, was nerve-wracking, but he had a good time. Said Ogilvie: "It was so much fun hanging out with Chef and seeing everybody trying to do the best they could at something they love.
"And now I've got a feel for the competition," he continued. "I learned about communicating with the judges and learned the grading scale of what they're looking for — charisma, manners and interaction with the guests." Ogilvie hopes to someday attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York and own his own restaurant.
As for Chef Doubleday, he says his students' victories at states "couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people. They were all so happy for each other — and it was a lot of fun hanging out with them, too."