• Vermont students cook up a storm at NECI
     | March 31,2014

    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Jordan Pellerin, 17, of St. George, left, and Sam Drake, 17, of Rutland, work together Sunday in the kitchen at NECI in Montpelier during the SkillsUSA Vermont Championships for high school culilnary students.

    MONTPELIER — Tensions were high at the New England Culinary Institute on Sunday, as more than 30 high school students from tech career centers and culinary programs across Vermont put on their chefs' hats and aprons and competed in the annual SkillsUSA competition.

    They demonstrated their baking skills, culinary expertise, and restaurant service skills, working behind the scenes at NECI on Main and at La Brioche Bakery for hours laboring over chicken soup, a chicken and broccoli dish with rice, an apple pie, homemade bread and a Caesar salad made tableside, all judged by a panel of NECI students and instructors.

    Chef Lyndon Virkler, dean of academics, had a score sheet in hand as he made his way through the cooking stations where students labored over their assignments. The NECI on Main brunch was open to the public as the SkillsUSA event played out behind the scenes, on both the main level and upstairs.

    Students came to the event from the Green Mountain Technology & Career Center in Hyde Park; St. Johnsbury Academy; Stafford Technical Center in Rutland; the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury; the Center for Technology in Essex; the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield; the Northwest Technical Center in St. Albans; the Burlington Technical Center; and the Windham Regional Career Center.

    The winners of the three culinary square-offs will be announced Friday, said Chef Virkler.

    Students were judged in the cooking category on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the high score) with points assigned for safety, sanitation, production efficiency, use of equipment and knives, personal hygiene and grooming. The dishes they prepared, of course, were the main test, including degree of difficulty and creativity, cooking technique, texture, and other considerations, including the all-important matter of flavor — counting twice as much as any other single category in the judges' evaluations.

    The SkillsUSA Vermont Championships are the state-level competitions for public high school and college students enrolled in trade, technical, and skilled service profession instructional programs. “SkillsUSA Vermont believes this is the single greatest event of industry and education volunteerism in the state every year,” the organization states on its website, “totaling over $400,000 in donated time and equipment.”

    Students who prevail in the culinary competition hosted at NECI on Sunday — and in other SkillsUSA competitions being staged elsewhere in the state — will go on to compete in the National SkillsUSA Championship planned this year in Kansas City, Mo., in June.

    Upstairs above NECI on Main, competitors took written tests and then prepared Caesar salads tableside, with judges observing their every move. Meanwhile, across the street, students at La Brioche filled the bakery's work stations, showing their stuff at baking rolls, breads and apple pies, along with some serious cake decorating moves.

    Back at NECI on Main the competitors stepped up to the challenge of a culinary classic: chicken soup. With hot plates and all their ingredients set before them with large cutting boards, the student chefs were hard at work.

    Among them was Miles May, 17, of Jeffersonville, a student at Lamoille Union. He pulled fresh thyme leaves from the stem as he made his stock, and had little dishes of his ingredients cut and ready to go in as he made his soup. Asked how he felt in the competition, May looked up for a moment and offered a single word: “Confident.”

    Erika Carsella, 19, a third-year NECI student from Kansas, said she took part in a culinary competition when she was in high school and her team ended up placing first in a national competition. That experience helped to boost her confidence and interest in the culinary field. At Sunday's event, Carsella wore a badge reading “student ambassador,” pinned to her culinary whites. She was dividing her time between the SkillsUSA competition and also working the restaurant's Sunday brunch service.

    At La Brioche, while students were making pies, bread and rolls for the bakery competition, Rebbeca Ryea watched through the big glass spectator windows, closely observing her granddaughter, Rachel, 16, a junior at Burlington High School. She said her granddaughter was hoping to get help with a culinary school scholarship and was giving it her all in the competition. “She's a good student,” said Ryea. “She's number 8, right there,” she said proudly, pointing through the glass. “She's making her apple pie now.”

    And maybe that apple pie was a winner. We'll find out Friday when the judges render their verdict.

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