The same basket of ingredients is given to over 160 Texas high school students, who are asked to prepare a delicious, beautiful, unique dish —and the FCCLA Level 3 Competition requires risk to stand out.
One Waxahachie High School team put it all on the table during the regional contest that later determined them the best high school chefs in Texas.
The WHS team, which consisted of Benjamin Castillo, Ashleigh Domkowski, and Brady Teel, was named first-place winner after receiving an 88.6 score in the regional contest — the highest in the state.
The group of seniors was the last to register during the fall semester for competition and were all new contenders. Domkowski considered them to be the "underdogs" of the bunch since none of them had competed before, nor were the students firmly acquainted with each other.
"Our first few practices were crazy," Teel recalled. "We were almost throwing elbows at each other."
But the team overcame obstacles and began to excel in teamwork after over a month of practice. The FCCLA Level 3 Competition required the team to create a four-course meal that consisted of two small appetizer plates, one entrée, and a dessert in under one hour.
Domkowski mastered a wedge salad and sautéed mushrooms for the small plates.
Teel intricately plated a magnificent chicken, red potatoes, and asparagus entrée with elegantly sliced protein that was elevated with a variety of garnishes.
Castillo crafted a banana pudding with surprising elements.
"It has to be clean and simple," Waxahachie High culinary teacher Joel Skipper explained. "That is what wins competitions. The judges are looking for something different, and you have to set yourself apart."
Keep in mind, every team was given the same ingredients. The underdogs had nothing to lose and excelled in presentation, taste, appearance, teamwork, sanitation, and organization.
"They were technically strong," Skipper explained. "They obviously have some work to do because they scored an 88.6, so that's 11 and a half points still out there on the table. Historically, 88.6 is rare. You don't see that a lot."
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the FCCLA state contest, initially scheduled for April 3. FCCLA advisors hosted a live YouTube meeting to announce the top five high school teams in the state that would advance to the national conference.
When the winners were announced, Domkowski was in the passenger seat of her mother's car.
"I think I almost fainted," Domkowski recalled.
Teel elaborated on the moment the results were announced.
"When they told us we won state, I almost started crying because I was with my mom, and she knows how much I love to cook," Teel said. "She heard the news and was freaking out more than me."
Initially, students were going to compete in Washington D.C. in July, but the national contest has since been moved to Ohio from Nov. 13 – 15.
Unfortunately, the postponed conference makes it difficult for senior students who might not live in proximity after high school to compete in the contest at their fullest potential.
Teel will attend Oklahoma Baptist to swim on a partial scholarship and study engineering; meanwhile, Domkowski will study nursing at Tarleton State University in Stephenville. Castillo is up in the air on his post-secondary journey.
As a first-place prize, the students have the option to accept scholarship money from either Escoffier ($5,000) or Johnson and Whales ($4,000).
A CULINARY DIFFERENCE
The dream to win the state title came true, and the national title is unsure due to schedules. But it is everything that led to this moment that makes it all worth it: the experiences and life-long skills.
Before Teel was introduced to cooking, he said he was 75 pounds overweight and consistently ate TV dinners.
"I was really short, real chubby," he explained. "One day, the Food Network came on, and I binge-watched it, and I taught myself how to cook. I got all that baby fat off, and that was about a year and a half ago, two years ago, and now I cook every meal for me and my mom."
Even though he decided to not pursue cooking professionally, he plans to utilize his learned skills in the dorm room and beyond.
Domkowski reflected on the outcome of her high school culinary arts experience, learning patience and that "teamwork makes the dream work. I am so thankful to have the team I did. Ben and Brady were amazing and I wouldn't change anything. They were so determined."
She then thanked Skipper and culinary arts teacher Jennifer Eaglen, who inspired her to come out of her shell.
"They have taught me teamwork and cooperation and other skills that I'll take to college, and I'm so thankful for that," she added.