A group of Winter Park students has proven their culinary mettle, capturing first place in the dessert category and second in the gourmet meal category at the Orange County Public School District Culinary Competition Friday, Dec. 1, at the Orlando World Marriott.
The Wildcats had a strong showing at the competition, with students Victoria Gresham and Zoey Berkley capturing the honor for best dessert with their crème brulee tower with cinnamon sugar puff pastry, pastry cream, strawberries and sugar stained-glass spun sugar. Brennah Flood, Elonie Torres and Lan Chi Tran captured the second place award for the gourmet meal category with their apple cheddar stuffed chicken breast with a pan dijon sauce – placed on top of brown butter spätzle and rainbow carrots sautéed in garlic.
“I’m proud beyond words,” said Chris Whitlow, the culinary arts instructor at Winter Park High School. “My prize as their instructor was to see them learning new techniques that they were able to use, to see the smiles on their face and to watch them grow as a team.”
“I think it was really cool,” said Torres, a junior who dreams of one day being a chef on a cruise ship. “We placed — that was our goal. The competition team was a really good opportunity for me.”
The Wildcats’ participation in the competition stemmed from the cooking class elective offered at Winter Park High. Students get a chance to learn about proper food prep and safety, all while learning a few new recipes and techniques.
“If nothing else, if they’re not looking to pursue a culinary career, they have life skills that they’ve learned,” Whitlow said. “It’s a great and exciting program — the kids get to learn new techniques. They have what I call ‘theory class.’ You can’t make a mirepoix if you don’t know what a mirepoix is.
“This is a study of the culinary arts,” she said. “It’s exciting, because the kids see that there’s so much more to it than just cracking an egg.”
Students volunteered to be on the competition team and began practicing and looking for recipes back in October.
The recent district competition, along with a competition earlier at Daytona State College, were the first in several years for Winter Park. The culinary arts program has been at Winter Park High for about 20 years, but Whitlow said she hopes to bring the culture of culinary competition back to the school — all while teaching them some new skills.
“I want them to understand that cooking is an art,” Whitlow said. “It’s something they can create using all their senses and their smells.
“I just want them to learn how to love food,” she said. “If they understand different cooking techniques and they understand different cuts of meats and learn about spices and aromas and they can put it together, they can create a masterpiece on their plates.”
Winter Park students will once again be put to the test on March 3 to 4 at the Rosen Plaza Hotel for the Prostart Competition — a statewide high school culinary completion that includes 50 to 60 teams. Whitlow said her students will be competing in the gourmet meal category, the edible centerpiece category and the waiters relay, where competitors must correctly lay out a place setting on a table from memory.
Victoria Gresham, a senior at Winter Park who dreams of being a chef in the U.S. Navy, said she’s excited for the next competition. Her love for cooking all started with her family.
“I grew up in an Italian family, where we go big or go home,” Gresham said. “(I love) just looking at people’s faces when they try our food and seeing how they like it. Their criticism always helps us know what’s better for next time.”