It takes a lot to be a state champion, and students from The Chantilly Academy's Culinary Arts program — including a student from Woodson — definitely have what it takes.
They proved it in the state Skills USA competition, Saturday, April 28, in Richmond, coming home with three gold medals and a silver. Next stop is 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 took place at the Chesterfield Technical Center in Richmond and competition was stiff.
"In our category at states, we competed against 10 academies," said Wes. "And these 10 had previously competed against 10 other academies to get there."
Peter, 18, a senior at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax, 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, Peter 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 sauteed 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," said Peter. "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. Peter 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. Once Peter 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 Peter 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 Peter. But even if that's not the case, he said, "The stuff I'm learning [at these competitions] makes it all worthwhile."