Dishing out chicken with tomato and mushroom sauce on top and garlic mashed potatoes and seared string beans, Luke Gustafson felt confident he had done his best.
For his creativity, presentation and technique, Gustafson, a senior at Hampton Bays High School, placed first at the 5th annual High School Student Chef Competition at Suffolk County Community College's Culinary Arts Center in Riverhead on Tuesday.
“I treated the competition as if I were at work [as a line cook for Oakland’s in Hampton Bays],” said Gustafson, 18. “I just did what I had to do and it felt good to be in the kitchen.”
Gustafson, who is also enrolled in Eastern Suffolk BOCES' culinary program, won two trophies; one for himself and another for his school, and $1,500 toward tuition or books in the college’s culinary program.
Gustafson was one of four students competing. Daniel Insoyna, a junior at Southold High School, came in second place; Ruben Bernacet, a senior at Bellport High School, came in third. Charles Alifano, 17, a senior at Floral Park Memorial High School, was the fourth competitor.
Richard Freilich, director of the college’s culinary arts program, said the competition was created in 2008 to provide high school students with real-world experience.
“This competition takes them a step closer to becoming professional chefs,” said Freilich, of Bayport. “This is a good opportunity to give them constructive criticism to help them grow. And it gives them a chance to see if this is for them.”
After participating high schools held their own competitions they selected one student chef to represent their school in the finals Tuesday night.
Students were given 1 1/2 hours to prepare, cook and place two servings of an entrée using the ingredients in a “mystery basket,” similar to the Food Network show “Chopped.”
Five judges, all faculty members in the program, judged students based on culinary technique, cleanliness, use of ingredients, taste and texture, presentation and creativity.
One of the judges, Jerry Dicecco, 28, an adjunct culinary instructor at the college, has owned and operated his family’s 20-year-old business Jerry and the Mermaid in Riverhead for six years.
“We’re looking for potential in these students,” said Dicecco, of Manorville. “We’re not looking for a superstar, we’re looking to see how they apply what they’ve learned in school. This experience is good for them.”
Insoyna presented a pan seared chicken with mushrooms and red peppers, garlic, string beans and sauteed potatoes.
Insoyna, who works as a line cook at Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, said it was a valuable experience. He learned the importance of being organized and thinking quickly.
“I was a little nervous in the beginning because I wasn’t sure how I was going to put it all together,” said Insoyna, 17, of Southold. “But once I started, it just kind of came to me.”
For Bernacet, placing third wasn’t a disappointment.
“I just wanted to have fun, so to get third place, well that’s a big deal for me,” said Bernacet, 19. “I never took a cooking class in my life. I have to say, this was a great experience because I now know for sure that I want to come here in the fall.”