BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Four aspiring chefs from Baumholder Middle-High School hovered around the stove Wednesday, staring intently at the lone pancake forming in a pool of butter.
“Your pancake has a muffin top,” one of them observed.
“It’s still good,” defended the spatula-wielding cook, senior Joaquin Cruz.
As the minutes ticked down on a kitchen timer, the pressure for perfection was palpable at the DODDS-Europe Culinary Faire, an annual competition in which the school system’s culinary arts students vie for top chef bragging rights and, for the first time, a chance to showcase their skills in a national competition in the United States.
This year, those honors went to the Schweinfurt High School team: seniors Cheyana Toussaint, Lisa Stevens and Jasmine Graves, and sophomore Serena Polm.
The team’s Southern belle banana pudding “won me over,” raved Sgt. Stacy Osagie, an Army veterinary food inspection specialist, who was one of five judges picked from the local community.
Even though many of the students are in their first year of culinary arts, their instructors opted to hold the competition earlier in the year so the winning team would be eligible to participate in the national culinary competition, said Faye Batey, the instructional systems specialist for career education for Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe. The National ProStart Invitational, scheduled for April in Baltimore, is billed as the country’s premier high school competition, focused on restaurant management and culinary arts.
Schweinfurt’s team will have to raise its own funds to go.
The chance to compete nationally meant a more demanding competition with more rules. The teams had 60 minutes to cook, with extra time for food preparation and clean up. They were limited to two burners and manual cooking tools. Besides creating, cooking and presenting an appetizer, entrée and dessert, teams had to use at least two cooking methods, properly cut up a whole chicken, and demonstrate three knife cuts.
A chiffonade cut with mint leaves? No sweat. Most teams were fretting about cutting up the chicken, or, in professional chef lingo, “chicken fabrication.”
“When you’re cutting off the leg, you’ve got to get right in between the joint,” explained Baumholder senior Andrew Smith, a first-year culinary arts student.
Smith was part of an all-male Baumholder team, the one that produced the top-heavy pancake.
Popular cooking shows featuring male chefs have widened the appeal for culinary arts, said Stacie Sais, who teaches eight boys and three girls in Culinary Arts I and II at Baumholder.
“It’s high speed. There’s no stigma at all,” Sais said. “In fact, a lot of guys think it helps them score points with the ladies if they can make them dinner.”
“The curriculum isn’t just about being a chef,” said Dana Cottrell, the Culinary Arts I and II instructor at Bitburg High School. It also includes restaurant management, food safety, inventory maintenance, catering, etiquette and other topics.
Though Smith’s team didn’t win, the boys from Baumholder impressed the judges with their chicken and shrimp served over pasta with a side of corn.
“Mmm,” said Mary Leonhart, nodding approval while tasting the pasta.
The meat was sautéed in garlic and butter, a task requiring skill, said judge Staff Sgt. Christopher Rolack, the enlisted aide to U.S. Army in Europe commander Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell Jr. “If you add the garlic too soon, it turns brown and hard,” he said.
While sampling the second round of cooking Wednesday, the judges gushed over the “no fry” fried ice cream from Naples. For 30 minutes, the team’s four members took turns shaking a bag of cream, sugar and vanilla extract on ice. The dessert’s coating of corn flakes, mixed with sugar, cinnamon, melted butter and a drizzling of chocolate syrup, gave it the appearance and texture of having been fried. “That is absolutely perfect. That is amazing,” remarked one judge.
The competition wasn’t limited to cooking. Students tried their hand at cake decorating, napkin folding and apple carving, and tested their culinary savvy in a quiz bowl. They enjoyed an evening of fine dining and on Thursday, spent the morning watching a retired German chef at work.
“The goal is for the students to experience different cooking techniques, to see what other students are doing, to try new and different things,” Batey said.
Culinary arts has grown in popularity since it was introduced at some DODDS-Europe schools more than seven years ago, Batey said. The program next year will be offered at two more schools: Alconbury Middle/High School in England and Incirlik High School in Turkey, while the course at Heidelberg High School, which is closing after this school year, will move to Wiesbaden High School, Batey said.
Even with the current budget constraints, “we are trying to at least maintain the programs that we have,” she said. “We recognize the need for these programs.”