Student Chef of the Year Competition

Suited up for "battle"
 Okay, so maybe I didn’t bring home the gold but I brought home an unforgettable experience. As you might have read in a past post I was nominated to compete in the ACF (American Culinary Federation) Student Chef of the Year Competition. I was chosen to compete at the South East Regional conference against 4 other very talented student competitors. I was the only high school student to compete and the youngest by 6 years.  After weeks of practice (7 days a week), missing dinner and consuming the occasional Chinese take out, the day finally came. I packed our bags with sanitation buckets, pans, pots, knives, probes, plates, bowls, utensils, you name it!

 After having minor packing difficulties me, my parents and my coach, Chef Hall took off for Atlanta where the competition took place. My mentor and friend Dorette and her husband Rich Snover drove from their cooking school (C’est Si bon) in Chapel Hill, NC to come and watch me compete! That night I prepped the ingredients in the hotel room, imagine defrosting chicken in the hotel bathroom sink and slicing bacon strips on a cutting board on the hotel desk. Dorette brought the goat cheese while I prepped, making it a more enjoyable experience.

Last minute preparations in an empty classroom

Competition day began bright and early at 5:30AM! I checked and re-checked my ingredients and equipment before suiting up for “battle”. The competition took place at the Atlanta Le Cordon Bleu, where other Regional ACF competitions were taking place such as Chef of the year, Pastry Chef of the year and more. The classroom was a nice size and gave the competitors plenty of room to cook. I began my set-up time at 10:10 only to be given 15 minutes to put equipment and food in its place.

 15 minutes to setup

Then the curtain rose, my heart pounded and the clock began its 1 hour and 10 minutes. Within the 1 hour I prepared the following dish in 2 portions:

Yes, this is a lot to prepare in 1 hour! The additional 10 minutes is for plating and to serve your dish in the “window” (where the judges taste). I was frantically moving yet it felt like a walk in the park (with some nerves) since I have practiced it many times before.

Lots to do at one time

Vegetable cuts have to be perfect (all the judges looking on)
The clock is ticking

The judges tasting the final result

When I finished and the buzzer went off it felt like a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders! However the judges critique was still to come. We waited in the lobby and contemplated the outcome. Then one-by-one each student was summoned to the judges for a private critique. Since I was the last to compete I was the last to be judged. First off, critiques in a competition are not meant to scare or hurt you but simply give you guidance, suggestions and how you could improve in another competition. I quietly nodded my head in agreement with the judges critiques, I told them what I believe needed to be corrected and I wrote down their suggestions. That was it, they left the room and so did I. We wouldn’t know the outcome until the President’s Ball Monday night (this was only Saturday afternoon).

In the blink of an eye (and a visit to my cousins in Atlanta), my parents and I, Chef Hall (coach and teacher), Stephanie Steliga (who competed for Pastry Chef of the year) and the President of the Palm Beach ACF Chapter, Chef Michael Jasa all sat at the table in anticipation of the results. After the first course of the night (beet salad) the Student Chef of the Year was first up to be announced. At the podium in front of a room full of chefs they announced: “the 2011 Southeast Region Student Chef of the Year award goes to…Keith Schwok!” My name is not Keith Schwok but it didn’t matter because I was so happy and honored to be sitting in that room with all those talented chefs and students. It was an incredible experience that I will always remember and I learned more in 6 weeks then I could have in 6 months! Here’s to Keith, congratulations and I know you’ll represent the Southeast well at the nationals in Dallas!

Keep on Cooking!


  1. These photos tell a good part of the story, how beautifully they capture the whole ambiance, and watching you was amazing, so wonderful to hear what you were thinking as you were "in it."

  2. Did you medal with your dish?