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Class 126 Cook-Off: Culinary Optimism and Camaraderie Win the Day

Eight weeks into their culinary training, CJT Class 126 put their new knife and life skills to the test with a COOK-OFF! Class 126 has already experienced exciting real-world opportunities with a site visit to The Gaylord National, and a chance to cook arepas with Chef Andrés-Julian Zuluaga of Blend 111 and mushroom risotto with Chef Rose Noel of Maialino Mare. But a CJT cook-off represents a critical culminating point of our culinary program, when students practice their interpersonal and culinary skills before transitioning to their internship and externship experiences.

The students worked together in teams to create and produce a winning chili dish with judging by our class sponsors, Jen Lawrence, Program Director, J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Family Foundation; and Greg Basalla, Director of Culinary, Global, US and Canada Food & Beverage, Marriott International, and guest judges, Rahsaan G. Bernard, President, Building Bridges Across the River; Gemma Thomas, Manager of Sector Partnerships, Workforce Investment Council; and Andrés-Julian Zuluaga, Executive Chef, Blend 111.

After tasting and judging the presentation of each of the four dishes, “The Culinary Optimists” took home first place with their show-stopping Mexican chili. Team member Frank P. noted how his team’s perseverance paid off, saying, “When we first made this dish, it was not good. We had to change it. We had to adjust the recipe, and we did. Every plan is something you have to change and adjust.”

Despite the competitive nature of the cook-off, the mood in the room reflected more camaraderie than rivalry. Shavon W., a member of the winning team, emphasized that all four teams produced delicious dishes, “Even the team that came in last, their chili was great.” When asked how she managed the pressure of the competition and remained focused, she laughed, “You just have to trust yourself. You have to trust the process. That’s all anyone can do.” As a reward for trusting the process, all four teams received a goodie bag of gifts, which included culinary staples like measuring cups and a spatula.

With only four weeks left in their culinary training, Class 126 is proving to be a small but mighty group of burgeoning culinary stars. “I came to teach the class how to make arepas for Heritage Day,” Chef Andrés said. “It is great seeing how the students used the skills we worked on in these dishes today. It’s amazing seeing their skills and their growth as chefs.”

The students’ commitment, positive attitudes, and desire to keep growing were the real winners of the day. Student Devante W. emphasized, “No matter what happens or how many things stress you out in the process—as long as you have confidence in yourself, you can do anything. You can accomplish anything.” With a successful cook-off in their rearview mirrors, our students are now looking ahead to their internships, externships, and new jobs over the next month as they continue to ‘trust the process’ here at DC Central Kitchen.