SIERRA VISTA— After serving the top dishes in the morning, four teams of local high school students gathered in the kitchen at the Cochise College culinary arts facility on Fort Huachuca and faced a final test Wednesday afternoon.
The event was tweaked this year to have more of a competitive focus and high-pressure environment, so the students could better prepare for a skills competition in March, said Rhonda Douglas, programs of study and dual enrollment coordinator at the college.
Ironically, the team that won was not even planning on competing at the upcoming Family, Career, and Community, Leaders of America (FCCLA) event but said, a little hopefully, that their school might change its mind now.
This Douglas High School team edged out three students from St. David to win.
“Amazing,” 10th-grader Zeke Miller said, describing how he felt. But Miller was confident from the get-go, unlike his two teammates.
“I was nervous. The fact that we won was really unexpected,” said Aaliyah Montoya, a 12th-grade at Douglas High School. “I think we did great as a team.”
Julia Leon, an 11th-grader, said she was just as shocked by the outcome.
The trio presented a simple, clean plate. The pork was sliced and laid over the mashed potatoes, which were contained by a semi-circle of sliced zucchini. The dish was finished with a drizzle of light-colored Dijon sauce that splashed into the open space left on the rectangular plate.
“Everybody was going to use a round or square plate, so we wanted to be different,” Miller said.
The judges were especially taken with the pork, which was moist and succulent. Other teams sauteed their pork early, leaving it dry or overcooked.
“There’s a lot of talent here,” said Terry “T-Bone” Kimbley, chair of the city’s tourism commission. Kimbley was one of three judges and was excited at the prospect of some of these young chefs adding to the local culinary scene.
He scored the students seriously, hoping to prepare them for the competition in March, noting that very large portions had been an issue that morning in some cases.
“It’s like they’re used to feeding cowboys,” Kimbley said.
Though her team didn’t make it to the cook-off, Buena High School senior, Magen Davidson said she was glad one Buena team made it.
It was nice to practice because most of the students haven’t had any experience in a competitive environment, Davidson said. She was tripped up by her artificial nails, which necessitated the use of gloves, and will definitely have them off for the FCCLA competition.
“Cochise College has been awesome to grant us their kitchen space and their knowledge to get us ready for this,” said Sarah Avalos, culinary arts instructor at Buena. “I can tell the kids how to do something a million times, but until they hear it from someone else it doesn’t stick.”
Her students use electric stoves back at the high school, so the speed of cooking on a gas stove is always a shock, Avalos said. It’s one of the many experiences that is good to have here, instead of at the FCCLA competition.
She plans on taking five students to compete this year and thinks they have potential.
“I have high hopes for them,” Avalos said. “They’re quiet but they’re deadly.”
The competition shows local students what Cochise College’s culinary arts program has to offer and gives them experience working as a team, in a stressful environment, Douglas said.
“The competition is healthy, it’s part of life,” she said. “You better get used to the pressure because that’s what it’s really going to be like later.”