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Feeling the heat: GTC hosts high school chef competition

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Grayson High School culinary students Lydia Huh, from left, Jaia Chambers, Drew Hancock and Iana Chambers are judged during the 2011 Dual State Championships Culinary Competition on Friday at Gwinnett Technical College.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Grayson High School culinary students Lydia Huh, from left, Jaia Chambers, Drew Hancock and Iana Chambers are judged during the 2011 Dual State Championships Culinary Competition on Friday at Gwinnett Technical College.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The Busbee Center at Gwinnett Technical College was a beehive of activity Friday, with 200 high school chefs from all over Georgia and even some from Tennessee competing for first prize in the 10th annual culinary cookoff.

The Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia sponsors the competition, which offers students the chance to compete as either chefs or as restaurant management professionals.

The cooking competitions took place under strict guidelines, with cooking teams allowed one hour to prepare an entire three-course, fine-dining meal for two. They were provided only two electric burners on which to cook, and no running water. Students were judged on making five classical knife cuts, butchering a chicken, their sanitation practices, teamwork, presentation, creativity, taste and overall performance.

The contest judges, according to the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia Executive Director Lee Gray, "are all master chefs. They've worked with us and this competition for years." Twenty of the 35 judges on hand Friday judged the students' creations.

"The hardest thing was being nervous, having all those people watching us," said student chef Candace McClain of Charles Drew High School in Riverdale. Her team prepared a meal with a southern flair that included shrimp and grits, potato duchesse and pecan beignets with a peach sauce.

Chef Margaret June, the Riverdale group's classroom teacher, said that preparing for Friday's competition took a lot of commitment and hard work.

"You have to be able to multi-task and keep your grades up. There is a lot of extracurricular work that goes into getting ready for this competition," June said, adding that only the top students in her class made it to Friday's contest. "You have to have a real love for the science of cooking."

According to Kerri Crean, Culinary Arts Program Director at Gwinnett Technical College, the student chefs arrived well prepared for the task, having been taught their techniques in the various culinary arts programs in Georgia high schools.

"When you look at some of these teams, you won't believe that they're high school kids and only have one hour to do this," Crean said.

Each culinary arts class has a mentor, a culinary professional from the area that assists the teacher in grooming the future chefs. Tim Gent, an executive chef for Kroger, is the mentor working with the Grayson High School students. He was on hand Friday strictly for moral support; once his team began competing, he was not allowed to say a word to them. A mentor talking with his or her students would result in immediate disqualification.

"These kids have a real love for cooking," said Gent.

Drew Hancock, a North Gwinnett High School student who also takes classes through the Grayson Technical Education Program, competed with his Grayson team in the chef competition Friday. His father, Steve, sat in the front row, watching his son do what he loves.

"From an early age, he liked cooking. That's why he took the culinary arts class at North Gwinnett, and that's why he's ... at Grayson. Grayson has a larger culinary arts program," said Steve, who added proudly, "He just got accepted to the Culinary Institute of Atlanta, his dream school."

Some students competed in the ProStart Management competition, requiring a detailed presentation to judges of how they would open a restaurant from the ground up. The task required a thorough business proposal, including a supporting menu, cost analysis, restaurant blueprints and a marketing plan.

"That area of competition is very tough, too," Crean said.

Every student who competed Friday receives a scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. First-, second- and third-place winners are eligible to receive scholarships to one of several schools: The International Culinary School of the Art Institute of Atlanta, the International Culinary School of the Art Institute of Tennessee, Le Cordon Bleu, Johnson and Wales University, or the Culinary Institute of Atlanta.

In the Culinary Arts competition, the first- and second-place teams will have the opportunity to cook on the main stage at Taste of Atlanta this October. The top team in the ProStart Management competition will go on to represent Georgia at the National Restaurant Association's ProStart Invitational in Kansas next month.