How does Palm Beach County School Superintendent Robert Avossa hold up under an hour of intense pressure? Well, his work space gets a little messy, the onions go everywhere. Throw in the question of whether carrots belong in an Italian sauce, and the “My mama” throw-downs start flying, as in “My mother would kill me” if the orange root hit the red stuff.
Still, team Avossa, complete with the school district’s director of Choice and Career Options Pete Licata and two student assistants, made a valiant effort … and a moist, tender pan fried chicken Parmesan.
Yet the plate wasn’t enough to beat the students representing William T. Dwyer High School’s culinary institute.
Face it, when the judge from The Breakers in Palm Beach says he loved your sausage and chard combo so much “I could use a whole gallon of that,” well, you’ve made it.
And so went the first cooking challenge issued by the superintendent to the more than 3,000 students enrolled in the district’s 12 high school and seven middle school culinary academies.
The challenge went out on Facebook and while many schools wanted a piece of the action, it was Dwyer’s name that was subsequently pulled from the hat. Its culinary program is about a decade old and more than 350 students strong.
“We’ve got some of the best culinary programs I’ve ever seen and these kids are serious,” Avossa boasted even before he tied on the apron and fell to their prowess – including a surprising play on spaghetti squash that involved a hint of lemon zest.
Avossa never studied cooking but he grew up working in his family’s restaurants, where the recipes came from his parents’ Italian heritage. His wing man Friday, Licata, is another home cook and fellow Italian – though their roots from different regions became the source of the battle of that orange root.
Licata says his family from northern Italy likes to sweeten the sauce with carrots and retrieve them before serving. Avossa used the executive veto on that proposal.
High school seniors Jackey Farias and Merri Juarez and junior Jenny Doung have been honing their skills in kitchens of their Palm Beach Gardens campus for a couple of years.
They’ve learned the techniques in class and polished their service at catering assignments such as the softball team dinner earlier this week. (Chef Leo Renzette, who heads the program, said he seeks enough catering jobs for the academy to double his budget each year.)
But Wednesday offered a unique challenge, the so-called Chopped Mystery Box.
Must-use ingredients are revealed in the minutes before the clock is set. Unlike the TV show that inspired the challenge and sometimes throws big curve balls like use this bag of Cheetos or that ox tail to make an entree, the Dwyer mystery foods were not miles out of the box: chicken, sausage, eggplant, squash, broccoli, chard and potatoes.
While the adults sweated it out like a superintendent waiting for the buses to arrive on the first day of school, the students worked like a well-oiled Cuisinart, all speed and action.
They didn’t even bat an eye when faced with a vegetable they’d never met – that squash that shreds like pasta. Or a combo they’d never considered – sausage goes with chard?
“I’ve been watching ‘Chopped,’ ” said Farias, who volunteered to take on the schools chief.
“You were poised, confident, calm,” praised Chef Frank Eucalitto, owner of Café Chardonnay in Palm Beach Gardens, and one of five judges.
“Your teamwork was outstanding,” agreed fellow judge and Palm Beach Post food critic Liz Balmaseda.
The panel was rounded out by Nick Velardo, The Breakers’ director of food and beverage; Jason Emmett, president of Duffy’s Sports Grill; and Sylvia Tricarico, a retired teacher and founder of the culinary program at Santaluces High, one of the district’s first culinary academies.
The winners earned a trophy but also two sets of professional kitchen knives. The school will keep one set, but there was talk of sending the other with Farias to her next stop: culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Miami.
“I knew they could do it,” said Renzette, an award winning chef who has worked at local faves including the Sundy House and 32 East in Delray Beach. “I’m very impressed with my students, very, very proud.”
What Americans are doing wrong, according to the schools superintendent, at mypalmbeachpost.com