ADDISON – The three contestants danced and dodged in between one another like seasoned professionals. Cheers from the crowd occasionally rang through the kitchen, particularly when Zach Molokie released the steam from his pressure cooker, causing hot water to shoot a few feet into the air.
"... [Once] that timer starts I go into a zone and nobody can really bother me," said Molokie, a senior at Wheaton North High School and Carol Stream resident. "[If] there's a camera in my face, it won't phase me."
High school chefs put their competitive culinary skills to the test last week in front of a trio of judges, including Maneet Chauhan, judge from the Food Network show "Chopped."
Molokie, 18, joined fellow students Michael Bode, 18, of Woodridge and Naperville resident Bryce Mooney, 16, from the Technology Center of DuPage in Addison to be judged as part of a national competition called The Cutting Edge Tour.
"The first place I walked in to [on the tour], I had zero expectations," Chauhan said. "These are kids. And I was blown away at the passion, the dedication that these kids had."
The three local students had 40 minutes to cook three dishes on May 16, and could only spend $30 on ingredients. All finished several minutes before the time limit.
While many high schoolers would balk at the thought, the young chefs were no stranger to high-pressure cooking. They're part of an elective two-year program at TCD and members of the center's extracurricular ProStart culinary team, which recently placed second in a national competition.
All admitted to being nervous before the event, but thought it was their training and experience that would take over.
"I know that these guys have had more experience than I have, but I've worked alongside them for a whole year practically and I'm used to being with these guys," said Mooney, a Naperville Central High School junior.
The judges handed down both praise and constructive criticism of the dishes. Molokie's ginger carrot soup was lauded for its consistency, though it could have used some spice to balance the sweet flavor.
A lamb plate from Mooney also had high marks, though the judges commented the chops were a little unevenly done. His plating and date sherry sauce especially impressed judge Gary Salvestrini, a large contributor to the organization that runs the ProStart competition.
Meanwhile, judge Doug Singer said that while they had been served a lot of risotto in their tour, Bode's prosciutto and pea one was the best. However, he thought the fried sweetbreads the Downers Grove South High School senior put on top were unnecessary.
Eventually, the scoring came down to what the judges called a "difference of just a few points," with Molokie's soup deemed the overall winner. He received a set of chef knives and an autographed copy of Chauhan and Singer's new book, "Flavors of My World," but unfortunately wasn't selected to move on to the White House Chef Tour in Washington, D.C.
Still, Molokie's mother, Molly, was there to share his excitement.
"How could you not be proud?" she said. "He's enjoying what he's doing and that's all that you want as a parent."
While Mooney said he was disappointed he hadn't come in first, he appreciated the judges' opinions.
"You don't know what they're going to say – you don't know if they'll like it or spit it out in your face," he said. "But it was great getting the feedback and meeting [the judges]."
Meet the contestants
Dish: Prosciutto and pea risotto with sauteed spinach and fried sweetbreads and lemon zest.
Future plans: Working in the kitchens of Cantigny Golf in Wheaton over the summer, using ProStart scholarships to go to a culinary school and considering Kendall College and the Culinary Institute of America for education.
Dish: Carrot ginger soup with coconut milk and a warm lobster salad
Future plans: Culinary Institute of Michigan
Dish: Lamb porterhouse with purple potatoes, broccolini and carrots with a date vinaigrette sauce.
Future plans: Finish the program at TCD and participate in more competitions. "I'll be back next year," he said.