Story by Lisa Rice
Nicholas Cermak, a senior at S.S. Seward Institute in Florida, NY, competed in the 10th annual America’s Best High School Chef competition that was held on Sat., Mar. 9 at the Culinary Institute of New York in New Rochelle. NY. The invitation-only competition is open to high school seniors nationwide and provides the opportunity for them to showcase their culinary skills in a state of the art kitchen on the campus of Monroe College. The competition draws many students graduating from culinary programs and looking to continue their education.
“I found out that I had been selected to be in the competition on Tuesday and had four days to prepare,” said Cermak. “I knew that the competition would be strong because most of the students come from culinary schools and programs and I’m pretty much self-taught. I learned from my parents and from my job at Sam’s Meat Warehouse. But I have no formal training like the other students. I was pretty stressed.”
The first round of the competition was basic skills: sectioning an orange, dicing an onion into quarter-inch squares, and performing julienne and tourne cuts on potatoes. Twelve students were selected to move on to round two, which was to create and plate a salad, complete with an original homemade dressing. Four young chefs then moved on to the final round, which was to breakdown and cook either a whole chicken or fish.
“Honestly, my goal was to make it through the basic skills into the salad round,” said Cermak. “I never thought my knife skills were my strongest suit. I had to teach myself the tourne cut in the days leading up to the competition. Going against kids who are trained, I just didn’t want to get eliminated in the first round.”
And he didn’t. While the young self-taught chef did not make it to the final round, he did hold his own in the competition and earned himself a $16,000 scholarship to be applied to a four semester Associate degree in Culinary Arts followed by a four semester Bachelor degree in Hospitality at the Culinary Institute of New York. The school holds three semesters each academic year so students graduate with a Bachelor degree in two and two-thirds years instead of four.
“We couldn’t be prouder of Nick,” said his father, Steven. “Mostly, he handled himself so maturely and professionally. When he realized he wasn’t moving onto the final round, he accepted his medal and certificate with a smile on his face. He wasn’t disappointed and said it was an amazing experience. It was only later that he opened the envelope to learn he had earned a scholarship.”
“We never expected a scholarship,” said his mother, Jennifer. “Nicky didn’t expect to win the whole thing. Of course, as a mom, I hoped he would. But he knew he’d be up against culinary students. Many of them had their coaches from school with them at the competition. He said he was competing against himself. He had something to prove to himself.”
“It was the best day,” said Cermak. “First I had the competition, which was amazing, and then I went and took my math placement test. Math has never been my strong suit but apparently I did really, really well on that too. I learned so much and just being in that kitchen was a dream come true. I really hope it becomes my home away from home for the next few years.”
For now, he joins many other high school seniors awaiting official news from the college of their choice. In the interim, he’ll focus on graduation and continue teaching himself culinary skills; but after four days of practicing, he said it will be awhile before he even looks at an orange or potato.