Georgetown's East View High School doesn't just boast the top culinary team in Texas.
At the state championship in Dallas last month, two of the school's teams placed in the top 5 in a competition of 25 of the best teams from around the state.
That's a first for chef instructor Emily Jimenez, an Austin native and former Driskill chef who is in her sixth year as the culinary arts instructor at East View. At the state championship, Jimenez was in a packed audience with her students when the emcee started calling the names of the winning teams.
“My fifth-place team gets their spot, and then you watch their faces when they realize the other team was going to win,” she says.
“They were so happy. There was no resentment or negative feelings. That’s what it’s all about, celebrating each other. We were all crying. People didn’t know me. They thought I was a parent.”
Now they're heading to compete on a very big stage: the country’s most competitive high school culinary championship on June 30, hosted by the FCCLA in Anaheim.
Trying out for the team
Jimenez got her start in kitchens as a teen, studying at Le Cordon Bleu in 2003 and then working at the Driskill under chef David Bull. She left that job to teach pastry at Le Cordon Bleu. A few years later, Mike Erickson, a mentor in the local culinary industry who now teaches culinary arts at Burnet High School, mentioned that there was a job opening for a high school in Georgetown. She didn’t hear back from him and so didn’t think much of it.
A year later, she got a call from the school offering the job to her.
Jimenez knew she wanted to run her classroom like a restaurant kitchen, with rigor and precision. “It’s a difficult class to get into in the first place. They try out the same way you’d try out for a basketball team,” she says. “They have to cook with a mystery basket, so I give them random ingredients and ask them to make something.”
Each year, she selects the best cooks for the competition teams and chooses a head chef among them. “I have meetings with them, just as I would in a restaurant kitchen," she says. "They have to lead, delegate. I expect research and structure.”
Jimenez says the advanced culinary students have to cook a four-course menu in an hour without any recipes. “We practice and practice for any case scenario,” she says. The students sometimes work as many as 25 hours a week in the school’s culinary kitchen preparing for the end-of-year competitions and catering events.
Because both the first- and fifth-place teams — Tiare McConnell, Jeremiah Knight and Karlee Satterwhite (first place), and Trey Waggoner, Claire OShoney and Maira Ross (fifth) — are traveling to California for the finals, all six students came back to the culinary kitchen in the final weeks of school to start preparing for the competition.
The studied up on pate choux, which they needed for the dessert, and practiced cutting up chickens for the chicken supreme with a pan sauce. Also on the menu, which they have to finish in an hour, are a celeriac puree, Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and the main dish, a ratatouille, a dish notable for requiring exceptional knife and plating skills.
“It’s the hardest menu they can do right now, and they are exhausted when they are done,” Jimenez says.
After a three-week break after graduation, the students, including seniors McConnell and Knight, will return to school to resume training before they pack up their whisks, knives and pans for one of the biggest culinary competitions in the country.
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The new home ec
Although she loved working in restaurant kitchens and teaching in a culinary college, working with high school students requires you to be “on top of your game," Jimenez says.
“High school teaching is so much harder than any kitchen job I’ve ever had. It’s harder but so much more rewarding because you have more than just cooking. When you’re cooking, it’s food, it’s numbers, but with teaching, it’s relationships.”
That’s something that’s often misunderstood about FCCLA, or Family, Career and Community Leaders of America — or “what home ec used to be,” she says. The nonprofit oversees dozens of programs across many career paths and disciplines, from hospitality and interior design to the environment or entrepreneurship.
“We train them to have skills so that they can be leaders no matter if it’s in the fashion world, with children or in the culinary world,” she says. “My students know exactly what is expected of them. If you have clear expectations and high standards, they’ll meet it.”
She’s had students stage — or intern — at top kitchens in Europe and some find success in local restaurants.
“I’ve watched students who are nervous or unsure of themselves, but by the end of the year, they are confident of themselves," Jimenez says. "It’s so cool to watch.”
She says she often turns to other culinary instructors in the area for advice and ideas. “We’re always trading notes. It’s a collaboration.”
One key leadership skill she teaches students, especially the head chefs, is to lead by example. “I expect them to be the first ones cleaning, the ones guiding the others. Because of that, when they get into these competitions, they run themselves. They don’t have to say, ‘Clean your station.’ ”
Ahead of a contest, the teams will create the dishes at least eight times, and often more, so everyone knows exactly what to do with each dish and how to plate it. They can’t anticipate everything. In preparation for this year’s final, they made chocolate mousse dozens of times using eggs, but in the competition, eggs weren’t included in the ingredients. They had to improvise. “They are intuitive cooks,” she says. “I trust them.”
Another twist: They don’t compete in a kitchen. At the state championship, they have to prepare the dishes on electric hot plates in a conference center in front of a large crowd.
At the national championship in Anaheim later this month, they’ll get to use the kitchens at the Institute of Culinary Education as they compete against the top two teams from every state. The winners won’t be announced until July 4, so the students will spend a week in California and even tour Disney’s culinary operations.
The school district pays for travel costs at the district and state level. To pay for their expenses this summer, the teams raised about $15,000 through nearly two dozen catering gigs at school, including luncheons, banquets and breakfasts.
‘It’s a lot of pressure’
Recent East View High School graduate Tiare McConnell says that when she was a kid visiting her grandparents in Central California, they’d drive by the Culinary Institute of America in Helena.
A decade later, she’s enrolled and will start classes this fall.
Georgetown resident McConnell is leading this year’s first-place Texas team to the finals; she had wanted to study journalism before taking a risk on culinary arts and on Jimenez, whom she’d heard was a good teacher.
“She’s an absolutely amazing teacher," McConnell says. "She takes everyone under her wing. She’s like our mom at school.”
McConnell worked nearly every single one of those catering events to raise money for the trip, a time commitment that has not been small, but she says it's been worth it. One of the things she's learned is that leading the team doesn’t mean she’s above her teammates. “I look at myself as a member of the team," she says. "Yes, I have to lead them, but I completely trust my two other teammates. I’m super happy with how we’ve grown together and gotten this far together.”
At the competition, she’s in charge of the ratatouille, which the judges require to be a stew, not a casserole. McConnell says she’s figured out a way to incorporate mandoline-sliced vegetables with the stew to make a modern version of a classic comfort food. “It’s gotta look nice, taste good and be done on time,” she says. “It’s a lot of pressure, but we are learning, slowly but surely, how to use the pressure to benefit us.”
McConnell says that adding your own creativity to an established menu is the hardest, most enjoyable part of the contest.
"I’m definitely nervous about it, but at the same time, we’re trying to have a good attitude about it,” McConnell says. “We have already accomplished a lot for ourselves and our chef and our program, so we’re going in with an open mind about what we can do.”
McConnell says that any time she had free time during the school day, she asked to go to the kitchen to work on whatever needed to be done for the next catering event, competition or practice.
This fall, she’ll start at the Culinary Institute of America that she used to see as a girl: "It’s funny how something that I never expected would be my career choice."