The scene had all the ingredients of an Iron Chef competition: The stress, the demanding judges, the tight quarters, and the hectic pressure to cook a top-notch meal in 75 minutes.
“There’s an Iron Chef frantic-ness in the air,” said Valencia College culinary instructor, Chef Ken Bourgoin, looking around the competition floor at the Orange County Convention Center. “Some students get in ‘the ring’ and they freeze. If you think of it like a football game, being here is like being on the field versus being in the stands. “
But for the 10 Valencia culinary students cooking in the statewide culinary competition on Sept. 8, the stress was just part of the high-pitched atmosphere. And despite some glitches – including a temporary power outage, low-burning ovens and coolers that weren’t cold enough – one of Valencia’s team won the gold medal and will advance to a regional competition in February.
That’s cause for celebration. This is the first time that a Valencia culinary team has won the gold medal at the Florida State Student Team Championship, a statewide competition sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, Bourgoin said.
The five members of the gold-medal team – Jill Holland, Trina Gregory, Rosanda Williams, Joel Santana and Rob Watson – tried to remain composed when the judges listed the names of the runners-up. When they realized they’d won, they finally released the day’s tension.
“The whole table just stood up and screamed out in jubilation,” said Holland, who served as team captain. “We were all walking down the aisle in this big, massive hug. It was just incredible.”
The competition – held Sept. 8 at the Orange County Convention Center — featured teams from around the state, including Jacksonville, Sarasota, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach.
While Holland’s team earned a gold medal, Valencia’s other team – composed of students Geoffrey Harris, Cheryl Smith, Kelly Rapp, Dawn Viola and Angel Buckland – won a silver medal.
Next, the gold-medal winning team will represent the state of Florida in the regional culinary competition, to be held in February in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The gold-medal team is composed of veterans, most of whom have already competed in several culinary competitions. And though they are students, most hold full-time jobs in the restaurant industry. Williams, for example, works in the kitchens at the Winter Park Racquet Club. Holland is the manager of Sweet Traditions Bakery & Café in Winter Garden, while Trina Gregory owns her own catering company. Rob Watson is a private chef, and Joel Santana cooks in the commissary at Bar Harbor Seafood Company.
To enter the competitions, students sign up for the college’s “Culinary Competition” course. During the semester, the students are put into teams, which then develop a menu and practice it repeatedly.
“You practice this dish over and over until it’s second nature to you,” said Holland, the team captain.
For a year, Holland’s team practiced together. The second Valencia team, led by team captain Kelly Rapp, began its work in January.
Not many students take the class, but the course turns out students who are ready to work in a high-end kitchen, said Chef Ken Bourgoin, who teaches the competition class. “They learn speed, efficiency, teamwork and cleanliness. Those are all important if you’re going to work in a restaurant kitchen.”
Students who’ve taken Valencia’s competition class have moved on to jobs at an impressive array of restaurants, he added, noting that his former competition students now work at Todd English’s Blue Zoo at the Dolphin Hotel, the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, K in College Park, and Disney’s Victoria & Albert’s, one of only three AAA Five Diamond-rated restaurants in Florida. Another veteran of the competition class is co-owner of a gourmet restaurant in Napa Valley, California.
But Holland said teamwork – and experience — were the keys to her team’s gold medal.
On the day of the competition, the students had to improvise because kitchen glitches altered their plans. When the dessert specialist on the team, Rosanda Williams, plugged in the three appliances into the same extension cord that teammate Trina Gregory used for another induction oven, the power went out. Meanwhile, Joel Santana struggled with an oven that wasn’t up to temperature – and his fish took longer to cook than usual.
However, the judges raved about the team’s dishes. “When they saw the appetizer come out, they literally said, wow,” said Holland, who took notes during the judges’ critique. “Chef Ken is always telling us, you’ve got to have that ‘wow factor.’ And the two biggest wow factors have to be the appetizer and the dessert, because it’s the first impression and last impression.”
Now, the Valencia team members are preparing to wow another team of judges in North Carolina.
“It’s exciting,” said Williams, “because we want to get there and prove we can do it – that we can go for nationals.”