Four students in Kelsey Kummer’s culinary classroom at Ralston High School have been chopping, boiling, seasoning and seasoning some more for well over an hour when she makes the following comment, sotto voce:
“I love food.”
There are earthy notes from the mushrooms, the unmistakable Thanksgiving smell of sage and the sharp underpinnings of onions and thyme. This little culinary laboratory smells better than public high school classrooms should.
“It is the elixir of life, after all,” Kummer continued as she bustled across the room to check on a bubbling stockpot. “Can’t live without it.”
Yes, everyone needs to eat.
And nourishment can be gotten by licking lichen off of porous stones or eating a plastic cheeseburger from the corner fast-food joint. But what’s happening in Kummer’s classroom at this moment is far from mere food-as-fuel.
The four students here, on what should be a day off from school, are in the final preparations for Friday’s Institute for the Culinary Arts High School Invitational at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus. At the competition, they’ll go head-to-head with 23 other teams from 14 area schools, each making a three-course meal in 60 minutes and having their food, their skills and their know-how judged by culinary professionals on no fewer than 25 different criteria.
“See that wonderful box up there?” asked Alex Humbert, one of the four RHS chefs-in-process, gesturing to a clear plastic cube in which resides a chef’s knife and a sharpening rod. “That’s what we want.”
The trophy is the hardware returned by a Ralston culinary team from the 2010 High School Invitational at MCC. Humbert, along with teammates Jonathan Gardner, Kaitlyn Brudny and Liliana Andazola, are seeking another trophy to join it on its perch over Kummer’s kitchen classroom.
To get the trophy, this RHS team has already accomplished something their culinary forebears had not. They won a school-wide competition in January as part of the Kids Can Cook competition, sponsored by Sodexo, the Ralston Public Schools’ food service provider.
“The kids have worked extremely hard on the competition,” said Judy Kyle, who is Sodexo’s school services representative in Ralston.
Along with Kummer, Kyle has been helping the four-student team prep their menu, learn different cooking styles, knife skills and other fine points of culinary artistry.
“They’ve put a lot of practice into it,” Kyle said. “It’s really been a lot of fun to see what they’ve learned and how they’re using the skills.”
Last Friday, Kyle was busy helping the team get a handle on different cuts with the knife. In order to participate in this Friday’s competition, each student chef will have to demonstrate competency in four of these six cuts: julienne, brunoise, chiffonade, medium dice, mince and tomato concasse.
After the knife demonstration, competitors move to the cooking, where they’ll produce a starter, an entree and a dessert on two butane burners. No oven. No blender.
In her second year at RHS, this is Kummer’s first time taking students to the contest. It’s also the first time for the four senior student chefs.
“This is all new to us,” Kummer said. “But I think we have high aspirations going in. We’ll have a good support system there for Ralston and these guys have been making some good food.”
While they preferred to keep the menu a secret until Friday, the chefs were excited about working with a few new ingredients. At the high school competition last month, Humbert’s food was judged “Best Tasting,” and he was working with different spices, grains and a stock which the chefs are allowed to prepare beforehand.
Gardner will be putting together a pastry dish for the dessert, while Andazola and Brudny were working with different vegetable and meat preparations.
“We’re finally putting it all together,” Gardner said. “We all have our own little specialties we’ll be working on for the competition. I think we’re all doing what we do best.”
And they’re all continuing to learn. Each student chef is or has been in at least one of the foods classes Kummer teaches at RHS. She said the courses function as laboratories for showing students the possibilities available to them in the kitchen and that, indeed, kids can cook.
“I got into this because of the health concerns and the obesity rates in this country on the rise,” Kummer said. “I wanted to show students I taught that you can spend $5 or more on a trip to a fast food restaurant or you can use fresh, real ingredients in your own home and cook healthy, delicious meals for a reduced cost.”
Kummer’s team heading into the competition is not only holding true to her model for a high school foods class but going well above and beyond in their creativity. And having fun doing it.
Working on stripping down a few stalks of rosemary, Humbert took a break and searched for the next herb he needed. He couldn’t find it.
“Does anyone have the thyme?” he asked the room.
“There’s a clock over there,” Brudny deadpanned. And went back to chopping cucumbers.