NEW YORK — The stakes were high Tuesday as 19 young chefs from New York City high schools whisked crepe batter, chopped herbs and seared chicken breasts in a competition for scholarships worth up to $100,000.
The two-hour cooking challenge at the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan was part of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, which has awarded nearly 5,000 scholarships since it began in 1990.
The program started in New York and has expanded to seven locations including Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. It has helped to train hundreds of culinary professionals, a couple of whom were back Tuesday as judges.
"It made all the difference in being where I am today in my career," said Kelvin Fernandez, 25, a graduate of the program who is now chef de cuisine at the Strand Hotel in Manhattan. "It gives you the opportunity to network."
The atmosphere in the two adjoining kitchens where the students wielded knives and sautÉ pans was intense. The students were required to prepare two recipes: a classic French chicken dish and dessert crepes with pastry cream and chocolate sauce.
Each student carefully laid out his or her mise en place — salt, pepper, butter, mushrooms, eggs. They yelled "Behind, behind!" as they rushed around the crowded kitchens.
Hansel Serra from the High School for Hospitality Management was the picture of concentration as he placed a towel under his cutting board to steady it, then began dicing shallots.
Serra's shallots ended up chopped so finely they could have been mistaken for grains of rice. His parsley and tarragon were tiny specks of green.
"It's in the wrist, really," he said afterward.
The chicken was seared, roasted and sauced, and each portion was accompanied by "turned" potatoes, a classic French preparation that involves whittling the potatoes into a football shape.
The students were working with identical ingredients but they used their creativity in composing their plates.
Some of the crepes were rolled while others were folded. Each student squirted the chocolate sauce in a different design.
Jessica Kuznitz's crepes formed a delicate butterfly shape, an idea she got from Olives restaurant at the W Hotel, where she is an unpaid intern.
"I tweaked it a little bit to make it more from me," Kuznitz said. "I liked it better if it had four wings instead of two."
Judges hovered over the students to watch their techniques, then tasted the results.
"I'll just say that I did taste some restaurant-quality food today," said judge Sani Hebaj, the executive chef of the New York Marriott Downtown.
The students will have to wait until April 29 to find out which of them have won big scholarships. The awards will be announced at a breakfast at the Pierre Hotel.
Richard Grausman, who started the Careers through Culinary Arts Program 21 years ago, explained that the scholarships are based on other factors including the students' high school transcripts and personal essays, not just on the competition.
He added, "If we have several different students that all have the same high GPA, then what the judges see here makes a big difference."
Tuesday's competition was supposed to have 20 participants, not 19. Eighteen-year-old Adrian Rodriguez, a student at Marta-Valle High School on the Lower East Side, died April 2 after he was struck in the head by an oncoming subway train. Rodriguez was hoping to win a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.