As part of his emcee duties on Feb. 21 at the High School Culinary Invitational at the Institute for Culinary Arts on Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus, Brian O’Malley, a chef instructor at the Institute, asked trivia questions of the roughly 100 high school chefs who were there to ply their avocation.
Right before Ralston High School’s contingent fired up their two butane burners — the only source of heat allowed in the competition — O’Malley asked this puzzler: “When did Metropolitan Community College first open its doors?”
The first answer was shouted by RHS senior Alex Humbert: “1807!”
The large room where the competition was taking place, with many teams already deep in the throes of the 60 minutes they were alloted to make a three-course meal, exploded in laughter, some of the first in a tension-filled room.
O’Malley, already whipping one-liners around the room in the course of his morning’s work walking among the culinary teams, hardly missed a beat.
“1807?” he said. “Omaha wasn’t founded. Nebraska wasn’t a state. Lewis and Clark’s boat was still wet.”
More laughter and Humbert’s response had done exactly what he’d hoped it might: dissolved all the room’s restiveness like so much thinly sliced garlic. Ralston was ready to cook now.
And cook they did.
The four-person RHS team, which took the name Jimmy Queen (a combination of the Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise and the Dairy Queen brazier), threw themselves into mad action on their menu, which included a fruit salad with a honey vinaigrette dressing as an appetizer, an entree of sugar-glazed pork chop resting in a bed of farro confetti and topped with a mushroom and asparagus ragout and a dessert of crepe cake.
From the sidelines of the competition, RHS culinary instructor Kelsey Kummer watched with a breathless anticipation. Breathless because the role of the coach in this competition is not to coach. In fact, any perceived effort on behalf of a coach or mentor can be grounds for a penalty. Kummer sat as stonefaced as possible as the timer began for her team.
“I am excited we have begun,” she said. “We’ve had some smooth run-throughs the last few days. We made it as real as possible, with an L-shaped station and the timer going. It’s intense. We knew this whole atmosphere would be intense. But we’re ready.”
At about that moment, RHS’s Kaitlyn Brudny attempted to extract a lemon from a net bag and nearly upset a few bowls around her. Kummer let loose a gasp, but Brudny quickly recovered, withdrew the fruit and went right back to work.
“Nerves,” Kummer said, catching back her breath.
For the rest of the hour, Jimmy Queen — which, in addition to Humbert and Brudny, also includes Liliana Andazola and Jonathan Gardner — sliced, diced, minced, boiled, fried and generally delighted themselves in the process of competing.
Each flight of teams started at 15-minute intervals and as rival cooks finished up their dishes, Judy Kyle, Sodexo’s school services representative from Ralston, commented on the thousand-salt grain stares of the students who left the floor to deliver their meals for judging.
“They look like they’re going to their deaths!” Kyle joked. “It must be very serious back there.”
It was, indeed. Nothing like a Gordon Ramsey production, but the solemnity was firmed up enough to be cut with a sharp Ginsu.
Still, the Jimmy Queen team seemed to keep things light. They laughed as they bustled.
When the gong sounded — yes, there was an actual gong — the Ralston team delivered their plates and drifted back to clean up around their roughly 12-by-10-foot cooking station.
Two of the competition’s floor judges eventually joined them.
There was talk about contamination — using red cutting boards for meat products, green ones for vegetables and fruit. A few pointers were doled out on menu language. But overall, the conversation seemed to go well.
Humbert said he tried to angle for a peek at the judge’s score sheets. He thought he saw favorable remarks.
“We made some good food,” he said. “We did some good plating. I’m super confident. I think we have a really good chance.”
“I’m just relieved it’s over,” Brudny said. “We had so many ingredients and got it all done.”
“And I’m glad there weren’t any aggressive photographers,” Gardner said, referencing the two or three cameras that had circulated during the competition, recording the moment for posterity.
The Ralston team was one of the last on the floor after the first of two competition sessions at the Institute. The glorious melange of flavors and scents, the byproducts of months of training and preparation, hung bright in the air. There was really only one more thing to wonder.
“Can we go eat lunch now?” someone asked.