DODEA Europe student chefs put cooking chops to the test
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 16, 2017
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As time expired, the four student chefs from Wiesbaden raised their arms, signifying they were done and exhaling a palpable sigh of relief.
During a tense 60 minutes, they had sizzled, diced, peeled and sauteed their way through a trio of dishes: crab cakes, honey Sriracha chicken and Caribbean crepes would soon meet the discerning palates of professional chefs serving as the judges.
With the grueling cooking round of the Department of Defense Education Activity Europe’s annual culinary championships done, seniors Majesty Henry, Joanna Snyder, Jamie Caskey and Myrah Hernandez — along with team manager and timekeeper Michael Brandt — managed weary smiles.
“I feel tired,” the girls said, almost in unison.
“It’s very stressful,” Caskey added. In rounds of practice leading up to the competition, “we’ve been trying to get it perfect and that’s just been stressing us out, too,” she said.
The Wiesbaden team fell short of perfection during the competition Wednesday, members said. Not all the cucumber slices wrapped around the couscous stuck, as they were supposed to.
But in the end, the wayward gourd didn’t matter. On Thursday, the judges named Wiesbaden the overall winner, with Naples coming in second and Vilseck third.
The annual culinary competition has been a tradition in DODEA Europe for more than a half-dozen years, offering students in Culinary I or Culinary II — the latter being the second year of instruction in kitchen and restaurant operations — a chance to test their kitchen chops in a competition rivaling the intensity of reality cooking shows.
But while taste and appearance are king on TV, the DODEA student chefs have to bring the whole package to vie for the culinary crown.
“In this competition, more than half the points come from teamwork, organization, safety and sanitation,” said Andy Dager, a competition judge and culinary instructor at Kaiserslautern High School.
“If a team was able, by some miracle, to produce the best-looking, best-tasting dish, but you know as a judge, how they did it was awful, they’re still probably not going to come out the best team.”
Wiesbaden earned high marks for teamwork, making it a point to talk to one another often, whether to signal “a hot pan” being moved from the stove or to ask “what can I do to help.”
For Naples, improvisation was key. After a blowtorch to burn a layer of sugar across the raspberry brulee went kaput, senior Deija LaFontaine used a hot pan on the stovetop to achieve a similar effect.
“It doesn’t matter how long you practice,” she said. “Within an hour, things are going to go wrong. It doesn’t matter how great of a cook you are — you’ve got to improvise, you’ve got to tweak the recipe a little bit to make it taste good.”
Vilseck persisted despite losing team member Serena Gilchrist, who wasn’t feeling well. That left first-year culinary students Aileen Garibay and Yaliene Martinez to defend Vilseck’s 2016 championship.
Garibay said she practiced cooking the creamy shrimp and mushroom pasta too many times to get nervous.
The dish passed perhaps its hardest test. “I cooked it for my mom at home and she’s like, ‘I like it. It tastes like Red Lobster.’”
Culinary arts is an elective that’s now offered at seven schools throughout DODEA Europe, with the addition of the program this school year to SHAPE in Belgium. Students can earn industry-recognized certification to work in the culinary field.
That fewer than half those schools sent a team to the competition reflects the level of commitment required to prepare for the event, and not a lack of interest, said Mary Leonhart, DODEA Europe student activities coordinator.
“They have to practice, practice and practice the dish that they are making,” she said, and that includes spending hours after school to prepare. “We find there are students who take culinary because they truly want to go into a career in culinary. Those students are going to be more committed to the program.”
Students from all three schools said they were passionate about cooking. Some were considering it as a career but remained uncertain about a profession that promised long, arduous hours.
“I’m always thinking about it but then, I don’t know,” said Kaethe Rose, a Naples senior. “I feel like it would be really fun but very difficult.”
Madison Doran, also a Naples senior, said her father always wanted to open a restaurant or bar and pass it on to her. Though she’s not sure if she shares that same dream, Doran said she still needs culinary skills because of her father. “He’s a really picky eater, so I need to be able to feed him somehow,” she said. “He won’t eat anything unless it’s meat or cheese.”