This Takes the Cake: Valencia Chef Named Nation’s Top Culinary Educator

When life gives you lemons, most folks make lemonade. Chef Jenn Denlinger is more likely to make lemon curd.

Or lemon cookies, lemon chicken, lemon cocktails. Or any Greek dish with lemon.

Professionally, Chef Denlinger – who leads the culinary program at Valencia College’s Poinciana Campus — has also turned lemons into something beautiful. Fourteen years ago, when health issues forced her to take a break from the daily demands of a professional chef, she returned to the classroom, where she pours her creativity into her courses.

Today, she has been named the American Culinary Federation’s Chef Educator of the Year for 2020.

Established in 1988, the ACF Chef Educator of the Year award pays tribute to an active culinary educator whose knowledge, skills and expertise have enhanced the image of the professional chef and have given leadership, guidance and direction to students seeking a career in the culinary profession.

“Chef Jenn, as we all call her, has an amazing ability to combine her love for cooking with educating our future chefs of America using creative and fun techniques that keep students engaged and inspired,” said Jennifer Robertson, executive dean of Valencia’s Poinciana Campus. “I am extremely proud of all her accomplishments and particularly her most recent award of Chef Educator of the Year.”

Typically, the ACF Chef Educator of the Year competition takes place during the organization’s national conference. The four regional finalists – representing the Northeast, Southeast, Central and Western regions of the U.S. – then conduct a live cooking demonstration and lecture in a 45-minute timeframe.

However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the convention was cancelled for 2020 and the finalists were asked to cook at home and videotape their demonstrations. For Chef Denlinger (known to her students as Chef D), that meant getting video cameras and sound bars – and setting up the gear in the classroom kitchen at the Poinciana Campus.

While that sounds complicated, she was grateful for one thing. “I was in my own place, using my own equipment. I didn’t have to travel with pots and pans and do this in the middle of a ballroom in Dallas,” she said. “The degree of difficulty would have been the same, but in a different place.”

During the regional finals, Denlinger was judged on her portfolio, which included information about Valencia College’s culinary program, as well as recipes, course descriptions and her lesson plans, which included a taste-testing lab in which beginning culinary students taste everything from Granny Smith apples to weirdly-flavored jelly beans and describe the taste.

After moving to the finals, Denlinger chose to prepare a dish that her beginning culinary students must make: Chicken Chausseur, a classic dish of braised chicken with a rich sauce of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, garlic and veal stock, which she prepared with mashed potatoes, glazed carrots oblique cut, and broccoli buerre noisette. From lesson plan to finished product, Denlinger had to do it all on camera in 45 minutes.

She went over the time by 58 seconds, but still emerged the winner. Which suits Denlinger fine. She entered the competition, she said, “ just to prove to myself that I could do it.”

For Denlinger, the fun of teaching culinary classes is figuring out how to make the topic interesting and teach students to rise to any challenge.

“The most rewarding thing about teaching is when my students get excited about what they make – and they show their moms, and they take pictures of their dishes and put them on social media,” she says. “Or when they start something that they think is going to be so complicated or hard or scary —  like ‘sausage day.’  It sounds so terrible, but when you actually do it , it’s pretty cool.”

Denlinger, who earned a master’s degree and doctorate and has 14 years of teaching experience between Le Cordon Bleu and Valencia College, never stops coming up with new ways to teach. She has taken students to local farms, done demos with them in the fields, and even created an “escape room” lesson as a review for an exam.

During Disney’s annual Food & Wine Festival at Epcot, Denlinger regularly does demonstrations – a nod to the years she spent at Disney, where she was in an apprenticeship program that rotated culinary school grads among the many restaurants.  It’s an experience she recommends to her students.

“I worked at California Grill, Flying Fish Café, Canadian Steakhouse, all the festivals,” she says. “I transferred as much as I could. I knew I needed to learn so much. So, after I worked in a restaurant that focuses on seafood, I needed to learn how to do vegetarian food. I knew that I needed to know how to prepare 1,400 dinners a night, not just 200 dinners a night.”

Now four years after starting at Valencia College, Denlinger’s happy to bring a spotlight to the college’s culinary program.

“Culinary schools are dropping like flies right now. There’s been a whole bunch of them closing,” Denlinger says. “I want students and the public to understand that we’re teaching a first-rate curriculum and that is affordable, doable, with financial aid. It’s not just a community college. You can get a world-class education here.”