A room full of sharp knives, hot pots and colorful ingredients is more than just a kitchen for the students at Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts; it is an arena where they can showcase their culinary skills and gain a wealth of experience.
This year, three students have been chosen to assist the three contestants in the Taste of Gainesville Iron Chef Competition. “They have nerves of steel, or should I say iron?” explained Chef Billie DeNunzio, head of the culinary program.
“They can take pressure.”
As members of the culinary or management teams, these individuals have participated in rigorous, statewide cooking competitions and are well prepared to handle the time-sensitive environment they will face in the Iron Chef Competition.
“This is an opportunity for the students to work in the large arena and feel the real pressure and adrenaline that is the life of a chef,” DeNunzio said.
Apart from being involved in the contenders’ brainstorming and planning stages, the students will act as prep cooks: dicing, chopping and slicing ingredients for the chefs. Who are these brave apprentices, you may ask?
What have you gained from the three years you have been involved in the competition?
“A ton of experience! The first year, when I was a freshman, I was a pantry assistant and it really opened my eyes and completely expanded my knowledge of how many ingredients there are.“
Last year, Iron Chef Celebrity Judge Madison Cowan said your dessert was amazing, how did you feel after that?
“When he was talking to me, it was almost like he was talking to just me. I got this big adrenaline rush. I had never been that happy before.”
What is your favorite aspect of cooking?
“I love the environment: the sounds, the aromatics around you; they enhance the experience of cooking.”
What do you want to do when you graduate?
“I want to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York — that’s my dream college. After that, I really want to work on a cruise ship for a year, just because I would gain a lot of experience. Then, maybe I’ll hop around and work at five-star restaurants that focus on organic and more local ingredients.”
What inspired you to become a culinary student at Eastside?
“Honestly, I’ve always liked to cook. My mom was always cooking, and my dad was a chef growing up. He showed me a lot, but I wanted more, so I had to come to the culinary program.”
What type of food do you enjoy cooking?
“Mainly comfort foods. One time, we had to make a vegetarian dish and I made it out of comfort foods. It had cornbread, collard greens, garlic cloves, jalapenos and cranberries.”
What do you want to do after graduation?
“I plan on going to Johnson & Wales University, and then I want to start my own catering business in Washington D.C.”
How many years have you participated in the Iron Chef Competition?
“I’ve done it for three years. The first year, I was in the produce department, and last year, I helped chefs from the Great Outdoors Restaurant.”
What is most important to remember when you only have 60 minutes to finish?
“Really, it’s just being organized — having everything in its place and making sure it all comes together at the very end. The little things count the most.”
What is your favorite memory of cooking with the culinary program?
“I remember in my ninth grade year, we did the open house. My friend and I did the cupcakes for the baking tutorial and it was really fun.“