Four culinary arts students at Cape Henlopen High School know what it takes to be a top chef after recently winning a state cooking competition that qualified them for a national contest.
Nathan Griffith Jr., 16, Junior DiMaio, 17, Melissa Aucoin, 16, and Aubrey Inkster, 16, made up the Cape Henlopen team that won the ProStart cooking competition held in March at Harry's Savoy Grill in Wilmington.
Teamwork was the key to their success. "We all had jobs, and we knew what to do," Nathan said.
Each student had specific tasks as they prepared a fish entrée with an appetizer and dessert.
Their win at the state competition put them in the running for April's National ProStart Invitational held in Baltimore. The group set up a workstation in a hotel ballroom along with other state winners, including a team from eventual winner Guam and an overseas Department of Defense school.
They filleted a whole rockfish and served it with ceviche, prepared chicken empanadas and, for dessert, created a chocolate banana steamed cake with fresh fruit as judges circulated throughout the ballroom observing and scoring their work.
The team earned points for skills and preparation and lost them on food safety and costs, according to a final score sheet given to them shortly after the competition. Overall, they scored in the middle of the pack - plenty to build on when they try again next year.
"We learned more about food safety and cross contamination," said Melissa.
Cape Henlopen High School culinary arts teacher Jennifer Cornell said the four students practiced chopping, cutting, mixing and other food preparation before the competition. They stayed after school for about three hours four times a week, she said.
Local restaurateurs served as mentors for the team as they prepared for competition, Cornell said.
"The mentors were invaluable," she said. "Without them it wouldn't have happened."
Cornell and the students said they greatly appreciated help and advice given to them by Lion and Meg Gardner of Blue Moon Restaurant, Steve Griffith of Victoria's, Mike Clampett of Baywood Greens and Danielle Panarello of Jam and Eden bistros.
At the competition, the students met other big names in the restaurant business: several from Le Cordon Bleu culinary groups, cooking schools and one they recognized from the television cooking show "Chopped."
"It was all about shaking hands in the business," Nathan said.
Now that they know where they can improve, the group is already planning for next year's competition.
Cornell said she has no doubts they will do well.
"Their teamwork was great. They knew what they were doing, and their food tasted really good," she said.