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CHS Culinary Arts team wins first place in national cook off competition

CulinaryClinton High School’s Culinary Arts Class has quickly received new attention under the leadership of Chef Catherine Bruce who, in her third year of teaching the course, has yet to back down from a challenge.


One of those challenges the group took head on was entering the Cook Around the World Competition held at Epcot in Disneyworld and hosted by WorldStrides.


She took two teams, and one of those teams brought back top honors in the North America Signature Dish category and second place in the North America Side Dish category.


Members of the winning team were Kaitlyn Walker (captain), Cheyenne Cornelius, Daphne Zheng, Aaron Salah, Elmer Durell, Matthew Spence, Nyla Heard, Bryce Jiles, Gracie Tucker and Noelle Nasekos.


“I heard about the competition from a few of my fellow culinary instructors, and I knew we could do this and that it would be fun,” Chef Bruce said.


She said she pitched the idea to Clinton High School’s Career and Technical Director Dr. Bill Hardin. She said he was all in, supporting her and the students from the start.


“I knew if we went, we would be up against some strong competition,” Chef Bruce said. “This is the eighth year the competition has been put on in Epcot. All 50 states were represented by at least two teams from each state.”


The competition portion of the venture was the part Chef Bruce felt the most comfortable about. It was raising the money and keeping the kids engaged she felt would be the most challenging.


“We had to raise over $40,000,” she said. “I was committed to not charging the students a lot of money, so we had to embark on a lot of fundraising, most of which our students did themselves. Plus, we had great sponsors from around the community, the Mississippi Restaurant Association and a few private donors who also supported us.”


All school year, the culinary students served breakfast to the staff at Clinton High School and to their fellow students. “It was a lot of work, showing up early on a regular basis, staying late, prepping, washing dishes, really getting to know the nitty-gritty of the restaurant industry,” she said.


Chef Bruce said the event in Orlando was well orchestrated. The venue has everything needed for the day already there. “You’re not allowed to bring any equipment with you from home, which was nice,” Chef Bruce said. “You show up, put on your chef’s coat, find out about the challenge and cook.”


She said the students were more than prepared for the competition in Orlando. “We cover all the curriculum needed to compete, like how to break down a chicken, how to butterfly pork loin, how to break down sirloin, how to properly clean and prepare shrimp. Those were all the proteins we had to use, and that’s all foundational to our class,” she said.


“But to get in there and be timed for 90 minutes, cook, have a beautiful plate and then leave the kitchen spotless—it was a lot. And they all did it well.”


The students were set in two groups and attacked the challenges with gusto. Chef Bruce said they practiced many times before the real thing, so the students were not thrown by the competition aspect of it all.


“The main hurdles were equipment issues,” she said. “The immersion blenders the students were to use were battery operated and they would not hold a charge, so both teams got really creative and moved forward with their challenges.”


When the competition drew to a close and the awards were to be issued, the students felt confident, but no one had any idea where they ranked on the judges’ list.


Chef Bruce, however, had a hunch one of her groups would make an impression. “During the competitions, I would go throughout the venue sampling the other teams’ food. Our two teams had wonderfully seasoned food and beautiful platings.”


The competition bug has bitten the culinary students, getting them charged up for next year’s competition.


Chef Bruce said her third-year students will take on new responsibilities next year, one of those being part of the competition team.


“They’ve already been planning on how to raise money for next year,” she said. “We have some other competitions we’re thinking about entering, so we’ll see how those turn out. But this competition in Epcot was truly amazing, and we’ll definitely return.”