The heat of the kitchen on the popular TV show “Iron Chef” met its match as a group of young cooks battled it out April 14, competing for scholarships to the United States’ top culinary schools.
One was 17-year-old Berenice Cabrera who once felt like dropping out of Long Island City High School due to her poor performance in math and English, but then tried her hand at a cooking course.
“I was not sure what I wanted to do, but then I always liked cooking and was happy when the school [placed] me in the class,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera was chosen to compete against 21 other students from schools throughout the five boroughs at the Institute of Culinary Education’s kitchen. The amateur chefs were cooking for scholarships provided by the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program.
“We had 50 to 60 applicants and it was tough for us to narrow it down,” said Meghan Seradsky, a C-CAP college advisor. There are two types of scholarships given to the students, one is cash and ranges from $1,000 to $12,000, and the other is institutional, with donated scholarships from top schools like Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University.
On the day of the competition, the students assembled at the institute at 7 a.m. dressed in chef’s whites, and patiently waited to be assigned a kitchen.
“I was so nervous just standing and waiting,” said Michael Garzon, a student at Aviation High School in Long Island City. “It’s like you don’t know what can happen — would my parents have to find the money for culinary school or would I be able to win the money?”
During the competition the students were expected to cook a full meal that included chicken cacciatore braised in a tomato sauce and sautéed potatoes. For dessert, they used their creative side, making crepes sucrees, thin pancakes garnished in a light layer of chocolate sauce. Some were topped with strawberries and all the dishes were made from memory.
“If you add a fruit as decoration, make sure it’s incorporated into the dish,” instructed Richard Grausman, president of the C-CAP program.
“There were times when I felt like I missed something from the recipe with all that was going on around me,” Cabrera said.
After the two hour and 30 minute time limit, the young chefs brought their dishes to the judging table, where they were critiqued on the basis of their communication, listening, sanitation and knife skills.
“My focus is not to turn these students into cooks, but to teach them the skills needed for entry-level jobs,” Grausman said. “I have had students who came from troubled backgrounds like gangs and foster homes, and now they travel the world learning under top chefs.”
As the students stood behind their dishes, Grausman made recommendations for specialized schools that they should consider based on their cooking skills.
“Seeing the creativity in some of these dishes, I think that pastry courses would be a suitable idea,” Grausman said.
Winners of the scholarships and monetary awards will be announced on April 30th at a ceremony.
“I feel confident that I can get this and in the end I just like having the feeling of appreciation [that comes with cooking]” Garzon said. -