Students in Ector County ISD’s culinary program are heading to two upcoming competitions — SkillsUSA and state barbecue.
The culinary program is housed at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa, but includes students from Odessa, Permian and NTO. Instructor Christina Acosta Ilac said there are more than 200 students in the program and four culinary arts teachers.
The SkillsUSA competition is coming up first, Feb. 25 and 26 in San Angelo and the state contest is April 29 and 30 in Round Rock. Forty-one students are participating.
“There are several ways that the students can compete in SkillsUSA. We are right now working on projects. The projects get displayed in an exhibit hall. There is a portfolio that goes with those projects. There’s also a cooking competition that’s four hours long. The students will have a knife skills breakdown and chicken, clear soup, salad and two entrees that they’ll be responsible for completing in that four-hour timeframe,” Acosta Ilac said.
“There is also a table service component to SkillsUSA. Five students will be doing table service and there’s quiz bowl competition. Some of our intro students are doing a jobs skill demo where they will take a skill that they have learned this year and present it in a five-minute demonstration,” she added.
The state competition for SkillsUSA will be in Corpus Christi and the nationals will be in Louisville, Ky.
Twelve participated in the regional qualifiers to go to state and two teams qualified. The state competition is limited to five students per team.
Acosta Ilac said culinary competed in 2019, but their teams didn’t qualify for state at the time.
Executive Director of Career and Technical Education Carla Byrne asked the CTE teachers to have a student organization that they participate in. The reason Acosta Ilac chose Skills is because every student can compete.
The 2021-22 state contest will be April 29 and 30 at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. It is sponsored by Nolan Ryan Beef.
The top 10 teams in each regional competition qualify for state.
Schools of all different sizes participate in the regional qualifiers. There are five categories — dessert, beans, chicken, ribs and brisket.
Acosta Ilac said there are stringent specifications for barbecue such as the thickness of the brisket.
The Odessa teams are Smokey Blues and Jalapeno Hotties.
The captain of Smokey Blues is Esmeralda Sanchez and Hannah Pena is the captain of the Jalapeno Hotties.
There are two class periods of culinary arts. Students come from Odessa and Permian high schools and NTO students are in the mix.
She noted that learning cooking skills is useful, regardless of the career you pursue.
“… What we always talk about is, at some point in your career, you will be in the service industry,” Acosta Ilac said.
Students may be working their way through college, or transitioning between jobs but they will likely be in the service industry.
“There’s always a way to put to use what you learn in our classrooms,” she added.
Even if it’s cooking for yourself.
“The idea that my students will one day be making nutritious meals for their own children because they took culinary arts class, that is reason enough to teach them even if it’s for them to cook for themselves or their families one day,” Acosta Ilac said.
This is her 13th year with ECISD and her seventh in culinary arts. She attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
“Whenever I moved back, I knew I was going to be a single mom and chefs are busy nights and weekends. I wanted a schedule where I could do what I love and be available for my daughter, so that’s why I looked into teaching,” she said.
She was a brunch chef for a bed and breakfast in San Francisco and worked at the Odessa Country Club for a bit when she moved back.
“When I was younger, I always found myself in the kitchen. Even if I was at a birthday party and the mom was in the kitchen, I would go and help in the kitchen …,” Acosta Ilac said.
Her mom worked nights so she gradually learned to cook and eventually she completed whole meals for her parents by herself.
Acosta Ilac said she enjoys making things for people. “My grandmother had a knack for cooking and even to this day, some of the best recipes that I’m able to share are recipes that I learned from her,” she added.
She added that she enjoys making things for people that they didn’t think they liked in a way that is appealing to them.
Maxine Flores, an 18-year-old senior, said she has been culinary for three years.
“I’ve always loved baking and cooking. I thought that’s what I should do with my life since I love it so much. This will give me more background and teach me stuff you can’t just learn at home,” Flores said.
This is their first year trying both contests.
“I’m a little nervous. I’m not sure what to expect, but I think it will be fun to see what everyone produces and comes up with,” Flores said.
Although meats are not her area of expertise, Flores said she still likes grilling.
Phillip Vance, an 18-year-old senior, has been in culinary arts for three years.
“I always liked cooking as a kid with my mom. I just think it’s fun …,” Vance said.
Pena, a 17-year-old senior, has been in culinary for three years. She likes to watch her dad barbecue at home and “try to act like I know what I’m doing.” She listens to what he says, but still said she gets herself in trouble.
“I’m really excited because everybody seems to have a lot of fun. Everybody seemed to have fun at the barbecue competitions,” Pena said.
She added that she thinks they have a pretty good shot of doing well.
“I think both teams work really well together just from watching everything,” Pena said.