High school team cooks up trip to state



An hour of focused cooking madness for three Liberty Hill High School students turned into the team’s mealticket to a chance to show they are the best culinary students in Texas.

The team of Coda Landers, Kameron Ojeda and Kaitlyn Taylor flashed their cooking skills at the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) Region V competition in Corpus Christi, and in Liberty Hill’s second year participating they placed fourth to advance.

Chef Travis Hawthorne, the school’s culinary instructor, is thrilled to watch things fall into place in his second year.

“What hit me when they advanced was, and I told my wife, ‘It’s sticking’,” he said. “They took everything I’ve told them and they applied it in a kitchen at a competition. I didn’t see what they were doing because we weren’t allowed to, but if they advanced that tells me they did it.”

It was a pretty awesome feeling for the second-year teacher to know his students are accomplishing so much.

“You can’t put a price tag on it and it really validates what we are doing here,” he said. “It is humbling and very satisfying and tells me I am making a connection with them.”

The way the competition is set up is simple, but the task is far from it.

Competitors are given a menu in advance, one they got to practice for three weeks in January, which consists of four courses.

This year’s menu was a Caprese salad, an appetizer of guacamole as well as sauteed shrimp and a baguette, a main course of sauteed chicken over fettuccine with spinach, and a chocolate mousse for dessert.

At the competition, the students have 60 minutes to prepare the meal under the watchful eye of judges, and they admitted there were plenty of nerves.

“We practiced so many times here that whenever the hour started there you just went blank,” said Taylor. “It is scary because you have to regroup, ground yourself and remember what you are supposed to do.”

The judges weren’t just there as observers, they often asked questions as well.

“While they are working the judges are walking around with clipboards making notes and asking questions,” Hawthorne said. “They are judged on the whole process from start to finish.”

The food itself is only one factor in the scoring and Hawthorne reminded his team before they began that points for cleanliness and organization were ones they should always expect to earn.

“I told them those are the gimme points,” he said. “Keeping a tidy workspace is something I’ve stressed to you since my first day here. It looks good, it actually makes your job a lot easier.”

As if working under a strict time limit, under the constant eye of judges wasn’t enough, the teams were not allowed to use any appliances in their prep and cooking.

“This is all done by hand,” Hawthorne said. “The only thing you’d consider an appliance they were allowed to use were the 7,500 BTU camp burners. It was a challenge because here we have the commercial kitchen and there everything is done by hand. They went from this modern kitchen to all hand tools and ice chests.”

Even some of the ingredients were slightly different or had to be dealt with differently due to the lack of equipment.

“We had practiced here and we had practiced with certain ingredients and everything and when we got there we were kind of thrown off because we didn’t have some of the ingredients,” Landers said. “We had 15 minutes to prep to get everything set up and in that time we just had a conversation about what we had to do. After that 15 minutes we just started going and it was natural.”

As the hour wore on, the team helped one another as the need arose, and began to gain more confidence.

“It is different for other people,” Landers said. “Our team likes to have fun in the competition, we’re loud, we like to do some trash talking.”

As Ojeda nods, Taylor says, “He likes to trash talk the other teams,” as they all laugh.

“Those teams weren’t talking,” Landers said. “It’s a competition.”

Even amidst the fun and competitive nature of the Liberty Hill team’s approach, they were complimented by the judges for their constant communication and focus. For Taylor, winning was great but it was more about the experience and fun.

“I really like cooking so these competitions are great practice for me,” she said.

While the competition went on furiously in one room, Hawthorne was left to simply wait and wonder.

“I spent the competition pacing up and down the hallway outside,” he said. “Everyone cooks in the exact same place, and they run it in heats with anywhere from 12 to 15 teams at a time and they just do it until they have run the roster.”

As the hour wound down, the trio found themselves rushing to plate their food, reliving the television time crunch everyone sees on cooking shows.

“They called 30 seconds and I was still plating,” Taylor said. “I definitely felt like I was on ‘Chopped’.”

The wait from the mad dash at the end of the competition to the announcement later that evening was full of pacing, and even with their confidence throughout the event, the Liberty Hill team was surprised at their finish.

“We were shocked because we went up against some really good teams,” Landers said.

They plan to take their focus up a notch at the April 4-6 state competition in Dallas.

“We had all our fun this go around,” Landers said. “Now that we’re going to state it’s time to straighten up, get to business and hopefully go to nationals. That’s the plan.”

Along the way, they say they have made notes as they’ve watched other teams.

“We learned so much from just the other teams,” Taylor said. “How they went about things and the way they presented themselves, time management. This competition taught us a lot we can take with us.”

Cooking for this team does not begin or end with a 60-minute challenge, and whether it is Taylor’s curiosity about world cuisine, Landers life-long fascination with cooking, or Ojeda’s family focus on cooking, the journey won’t end in April.

“My family, like my grandmas, they like to make homemade food and I’ve always liked it. I like eating it,” Ojeda said. “When I heard there was a culinary program in high school I wanted to check it out. I’ve had a lot of fun in culinary.”

Others that competed in culinary competitions in Corpus Christi were Ava Tolley-Enstrom, Montgomery Thompson, Alex Urben, Dylan Block, Joey Monk, Drake Branigan and Noelia Hernandez.

Hawthorne said what he’s already seen of his students speaks volumes about who they are.

“The fact they have been able to do this at such a young age is incredible,” Hawthorne said. “A lot of people talk about this generation as they don’t learn anything, they’re not interested in anything, they have no passion. But when I see this I know that’s not everyone. They went out amongst strangers, against peers they’ve never met before with all that pressure and they were still able to function. That’s very special.”