Rising to the challenge

Area high school students took learning out of the classroom and into the kitchen at the Culinary Skills Challenge

Teamwork and timing were key for competitors in the Culinary Skills Challenge. Marshall High School teammates Power Yang, Osman Hassan and Eli Brau prepared ingredients for their competition dish, chicken Milano.

There was plenty of chatter around the gymnasium at Southwest Minnesota State University’s Recreation/Athletic Facility, as area high school students buttoned their white chef’s jackets and set up their workstations.

But once the judges started the time clock, things quieted down. The teens were focused on the tasks before them — whether that meant seasoning a sauce, or keeping a steady hand while frosting a cake.

“I tried to zone out everybody else,” said Hayley Vold, a student at Lakeview High School. She was keeping her focus on her icing technique during the cake decorating competition, part of the annual Culinary Skills Challenge held at SMSU on March 30.

The event combines culinary competitions with educational sessions about the food industry. A total of 215 students, from 14 schools across southwest Minnesota, attended this year’s Skills Challenge, said Gail Polejewski, one of the organizers of the event.

The Culinary Skills Challenge gives area high school students an opportunity for hands-on learning and career exploration, said Maxine Peterson, a family and consumer science specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education.

“This is where it becomes real,” Peterson said.

Polejewski said one of the goals of the Skills Challenge is to get students to try something new and increase their interest in industries ranging from farming to food science and hospitality.

“There’s a lot to it. It’s not just cooking,” she said.

The Culinary Skills Challenge features several different competitions in which area high school students can participate. One of the main events is the cooking challenge, where teams of students work together to prepare a meal within a time limit. The top three teams in the culinary competition receive scholarships to attend SMSU’s culinology program, Polejewski said.

Competing in the Skills Challenge was fun, but nerve-wracking, area students said.

“It came down to the last minute,” said Emily Gillingham, a member of Minneota High School’s culinary team.

“We had to slow down a little,” said Marshall High School culinary team member Noah Louwagie. If the team finished preparing its dish too quickly, he said, it could get cold before it was served.

But in the end, “We came together as a team,” said MHS team member Osman Hassan

Part of the thrill of competing came from interacting with the judges, students said. Judges for the culinary competition included the event’s keynote speaker, chef Seth Bixby Daugherty, who was able to offer hints on technique to competitors.

“His tips were really good,” said Minneota student Heidi Guttormsson.

Other competitions include baking, place setting, cake decorating, and even knife skills. Cake decorating was one of the more popular competitions at this year’s Skills Challenge, with both a cake and a cupcake division.

“We had one hour, and we had to use at least two different frosting tips. I used five,” Vold said, describing the rules of the cake decorating competition. She said it took her a few different practice runs to perfect the design of her cake, which looked like a colorful basket of spring flowers. “I thought, since I do flower gardening, that would be cool.”

Sometimes Skills Challenge competitions change over time, Polejewski said. One example was the Food Art category.

“It started out as garnishing,” Polejewski said. But as the garnishes students made got more and more elaborate, the focus of the contest changed. At this year’s competition, students created everything from carved watermelon centerpieces, to entire sculptures made of edible ingredients.

Not all the students competing in the Culinary Skills Challenge were there because they were interested in a career in the food industries. Some were in it for the experience.

“I do cooking as a hobby,” said MHS student Power Yang. But he hadn’t thought of competing until Louwagie started organizing a culinary team.

“It sounds corny, but coming together as a group of friends” was one of the best parts of taking on the culinary challenge, Louwagie said.