Virginia B. Wood predicts a bright future for the budding chefs who took part in last week's Culinary Arts Career Conference
Last week's first Culinary Arts Career Conference hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance was a rousing success, providing hundreds of Central Texas high school culinary arts students a day filled with information and interaction. Students spent the morning attending panel discussions on everything from food truck start-ups to culinary careers for women to the do's-and-don'ts of landing jobs. Afternoon activities included competitions in knife skills, plate decoration, fruit carving, omelette-making, and a mystery basket cook-off, plus a culinary expo packed with information, flavor, and swag! Homegrown chef/restaurateurs Hoover Alexander and Rene Ortiz shared words of wisdom and encouragement to the students at the close of the day. I was proud to be there and gratified to wear a lanyard reading "Organizer" and a button that encouraged students to "Ask Me About My Career" as I served as one of the judges of the "Mystery Basket" competition. Seven area high school teams entered the contest and each team had to develop a menu and then prepare a chicken entrée and a salad with vinaigrette in an allotted amount of time. Cooks were provided with a selection of produce and pantry items, and the mystery ingredient was coconut milk. The contestants cooked outdoors over individual gas burners in a stiff breeze, adding another challenge to the already stressful activity. Three of the seven teams opted to make their own pasta during the allotted cooking time, which we judges considered a bold move, and all seven teams did a very respectable job of cooking their proteins. Plates were to be judged on presentation and flavor, and while the teams certainly demonstrated differing skill levels, there were no "grin and bear it" entries – we received seven well-prepared plates of food for evaluation. The presentation winner was apparent to the entire judging panel as soon as that artistic plate arrived at the table, but judging the flavors took more time and consideration. Four of the contenders were close, but three of those lacked the very basic, but crucial, element of proper seasoning: Whether it was pasta, couscous, or polenta, all three dishes lacked salt. In the end, the plate with the best presentation also had the best flavors: a perfectly prepared chicken breast arrayed atop a properly seasoned bed of fresh pasta, napped with a mushroom cream sauce, paired with a cylinder of chopped tomato salad in a bright, tangy vinaigrette. Congratulations to Jayme Holden and Megan Clark-Tchen from College Station High School for their winning plate. These young ladies did an excellent job. Here are the other winners in the Mystery Basket competition: 2nd place: Ryan Johnson and JoVaun Young (John B. Connally High School, Pflugerville ISD); 3rd place: Jose Rodriguez and Cameron Gonzalez (Samuel Clemens High School, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD); 4th place: Dominique Jenkins Whitehead and Jacob Depaula (Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock ISD); 5th place: Alexis Lingley and Louis Bononcini (John Marshall High School, NorthSide ISD); 6th place: Alan Michael Luck and Matthew Bigley (Round Rock High School, Round Rock ISD).