Forest High students cook up top awards

Students earn gold, silver and bronze medals in SkillsUSA state event

The judges in the SkillsUSA Florida Culinary Arts and Restaurant Service competitions had to make their assessments via Zoom because of the pandemic.

Cane Fernandez, 15, left, and Cody Blaire, 16, pose in the culinary arts kitchen at Forest High School. Fernandez placed first in the Florida Skills U.S.A. culinary competition last Tuesday, April 20 and Blaire placed second in the competition. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

And even though they could not taste the dishes prepared by Cane Fernandez and Cody Blaire, or actually be seated at a table by Walter Hoffman, they still picked out the Forest High School students as some of the best in the state.

Cane took the gold medal, and Cody earned the silver in the culinary arts division; Walter won bronze in the restaurant service category.

Patrick Stanley, the school’s culinary instructor, said it was the first time Forest High took the top two spots in culinary arts.

SkillsUSA is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor as a model of workforce development. It is a partnership of students, teachers and industry personnel and serves middle- and high-school and college/postsecondary students preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations. The state competition, held virtually from April 13-22, included more than 1,500 students and instructors, with more than 100 competition categories.

For the culinary arts competition, contestants were judged on organization, knife skills, cooking techniques, creative presentation and sanitation food safety techniques. For restaurant service, the competition tested skills required in the “front of the house” of a fine dining restaurant, including table set up, greeting guests, description of menu and specials of the day, taking orders and serving and clearing each course. Even the presentation of the check was judged.

Stanley said he was proud of the students, especially since there was a misunderstanding before the competition.

“They created their dishes a week before, and I went out and brought all the product. The day before the competition, we found out that wasn’t it, and they had to come up with other dishes,” Stanley said. “They worked out the recipes and assembled the items in less than 24 hours. That’s the kind of pressure they were under, and they really, really came out swinging and did a marvelous job.”

Cane’s creation was a Spanish-style chicken with handmade pasta and blistered tomatoes, with a side dish of pasta salad. The entree was served as a meal for two in a cast iron skillet.

“Since it was online, most of it was judged on presentation, but I definitely think the judges looked at what spices you were using and how much you were using as that would affect the flavor of the dish,” he said. “They did have us cut the chicken to see if it was cooked correctly.”

Cody prepared a carrot puree braised chicken with a side of broccoli with cheese sauce.

“Since they couldn’t taste the dish itself, I was going for something new, something creative,” he said. “It was different because you usually braise chicken in a broth, so braising in carrot puree was not something people usually do.”

Stanley said Cane’s and Cody’s performances were even more impressive, given they are sophomores.

“They beat out seniors that have been doing it for three or four years. These two sophomores are going to be the ones to beat in the next couple of years, so that’s exciting for them and for the program too,” he said.

Stanley said Marion County’s culinary program is one of the largest in Central Florida, with more than 350 students. Belleview, Dunnellon and Lake Weir high schools and Belleview and Osceola middle schools also have culinary programs.

The Florida Department of Education’s Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs and certifications can help prepare middle school, high school, technical school and college students to be successful in today’s economy.

“We believe in the CTE program’s three E’s, which are employment, enrollment or enlistment because after you get out of high school, after senior year, there’s no such thing as summer break. We want to get them going right away, and those certifications certainly do help,” Stanley said.

Among the certifications available is food management, which Cody earned in eighth grade.

“In a restaurant, there has to be someone who has that certification,” Stanley said. “It’s a very difficult test. Cane is working on his now.”

Cane, who is the son of Ocala restaurateur Ron “Rondo” Fernandez, is no stranger to a kitchen. His father launched the Mojo’s chain that now includes two restaurants in Ocala, one in Belleview and one in Leesburg, as well as a catering operation.

“I am super proud of that young man. And I think he got his foundation from us, but he likes to be his own person,” Fernandez said. “He won a scholarship in wrestling. In fact, he’s also the county champ in wrestling.”

Cane said he hopes to pursue a career as a forensic scientist or medical examiner. Cody plans to work in the culinary field until he can join the military.

As the gold medal winner for the state, Cane will advance to the SkillsUSA National Competition in mid-June, which will also be held virtually.

To learn more about SkillsUSA, visit skillsusafl.org.

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