Student chefs compete at bake-off

LILBURN - Students from six Gwinnett high schools donned aprons, crisp white coats and signature chef hats as they competed Wednesday in the annual Gwinnett County Culinary Competition.

They had one hour to create cookies, muffins and shortcakes that looked great and tasted delicious.

Every year, Gwinnett County schools hosts two bake-offs: one for advanced students and one for beginner culinary students. This year's event held at Berkmar High School was considered the most successful.

"It creates a whole new atmosphere and interest in our programs," said Debbie Grant, who organized the bake-off. "It has also helped all of us as teachers. We have learned a lot by doing these competitions."

Each school sent a team of culinary students to the bake-off. They had one hour to slice, bake, frost and garnish their way to victory. Teams from Grayson, North Gwinnett, Mill Creek, Meadowcreek, Duluth and Peachtree Ridge high schools participated.

In the end, North Gwinnett sophomores Linda Hector and Hope Beck took home the top prize: a gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse. They made vanilla pear muffins, an original creation they came up with after much experimentation.

"We started out with an apple pear scone, and I think we made so many alterations to them that we ended up with something all new," Beck said.

The students credited their teacher, Chef David Ross, with helping them win the competition. A former instructor at Cordon Bleu College, he was impressed with the high school bake-off.

"The level of sanitation, culinary skills - every year, it increases," Ross said. "This, in my opinion, is almost to the level of a professional competition."

Second place went to Meadowcreek High School, and Grayson students took third with their chocolate pixie cookies.

For Meadowcreek student Marianne Ruiz, 18, competitions like this reinforce why she wants to be a chef. After taking three culinary classes in high school, she plans to study it at the Art Institute of Atlanta this fall.

"I love the art of it," Ruiz said. "The food is like a toy. You get to do whatever you want with it. It's creative; it's a way to express yourself."

This was the first time students from Duluth High School participated in the bake-off, opting to make cream puff swans in a blueberry sauce. One student, Brittney Pugh, insisted the school send a team to compete.

"Neither one of them want to be chefs, but they do want to represent our school," said Bunny Taplin, Duluth's family and consumer sciences teacher.

The students prepared elaborate desserts, many of them original or adapted from other recipes. Peachtree Ridge students made red, white and blue shortcakes, while Mill Creek student chefs opted for raspberry and rose shortcakes.

Judges and coaches were more than just teachers with a sweet tooth; they were professional chefs. They commended the students for being able to produce such wonderful food before they even completed their first cooking class.

And though they were deep in concentration as they set up, baked and decorated, the students agreed the competition was more enjoyable than stressful.

"It was fun," Amber Suarez, 15, said. "We were laughing while we were doing it."