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Sharp knifes, sizzling cast irons and the smell of fresh exotic food would trickle right under your noise. Mouths were instantly salivating; as students, judges and peers walked into the Lakewood High School cafeteria Thursday afternoon. Sodexo and Lakewood High School teachers kicked off their 5th Annual Kitchen Wars. The theme was “Word Celebrations,” culinary students had to provide an appetizer, entrée and dessert.

Sodexo General Manager, Corey Goldfarb says, Kitchen Wars is a way to teach students about different cultures, different experiences and different foods. Kitchen Wars is geared for students who have a passion for the culinary industry. It also teaches them recipe building, time management and teamwork.

Planning for Kitchen Wars didn’t happen over night, Corey Goldfarb and Chef James Conway started preparing for this event in September. Teams are assigned in December and weekly meeting begin in January. Culinary students must take a food safety course before they begin prepping their desired ethnic food.

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit Chris Scali)

Students didn’t have to try out for this contest, they had to form their own groups and pair with a professional advisor. Goldfarb says they had to do all of the work.

“We consult with them, we tell them what will work, what won’t work in their recipes, but they do the whole thing.”

Goldfarb asks the students to go outside their comfort zone; he doesn’t want his culinary professionals to cook the same old foods that they do at home.

“This year we have one team that’s doing the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival. You’re going to see moshi cakes, Yakitori a few other items. We have the day of the dead, which are making fresh roast pork enchiladas.”

 

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit: Chris Scali)

My favorite cuisine was the Oktoberfest station. I tried the sauerbraten pretzels, they were homemade pretzels stuffed with a chicken and sauerkraut. The dish wasn’t salty and the bread wasn’t soggy. Every single ingredient was exquisite and not over done. Students were judged on a scale from one to five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. Judges graded the food on taste, appearance, originality, presentation and knowledge of recipe.

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit: Chris Scali

The Kitchen War winner doesn’t only get bragging rights but they receive the portion of the five-dollar donation that’s received at the door. They get to pick what group they’d like to fund and support at Lakewood High School.

“We felt that funding is always very difficult for school clubs and they have to fundraisers. So this is a fun way for the community to come out and see what these kids are really capable of. It’s a great way to raise money while having fun.”

Many students who participate in kitchen wars are inspired to learn more about culinary arts.

“You would be really surprised that the students who never cooked before that come out of this, who join the chefs club next year to take his class. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them did go on to a culinary career.”

Chef James Conroy who has a very interesting story; before teaching Kitchen Wars at Lakewood High School, he was previously a consultant for Lakewood High. Conroy was only going to write the curriculum for the High School, but a position opened up. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.

“It turns out they needed teacher, so I changed careers. I jumped out of my career in management and consulting and I went back to school to be a teacher.”

The Lakewood High School district wanted  put together a culinary program. Conroy came in and began starting the curriculum. Lakewood previously had a home economics program, Conroy said it needed some updating.

“So thanks to the Perkins Grant we were able to fund the program and get new text. The kids are really into it because I mean where don’t you see food service now. Everyone is into food, you see it on TV, and the kids are into it. And really it’s employing hospitality and tourism, it employs half the people in the country.”

Conroy teaches his students many pearls in this industry, one of them being honesty. He says be honest with yourself right out of the bat. The next pearl he teaches his students is sanitation and safety. Conroy says it’s the inessential part of this business. Finally he wants his students to have fun and enjoy what they’re cooking.

 

Jason Byrd talking about his favorite dish at Kitchen Wars. (Photo Credit: Chris Scali)

“I have a couple of students out there now in hotels, I have a couple of students who went to culinary school. So we had some success here that I am really pleased with.”

As Conroy says it makes him feel proud knowing that his students are succeeding in this industry. Being in the food industry isn’t any cakewalk, you must have the “roll up the sleeves” mentality.

“I think the hardest part is probably the hours, everyone is out having fun and your working. But we learn to really enjoy it and make good time of it in the business. Sometimes when you go out, you go out a bit later. Sometimes you celebrate Christmas and New Years a day or two later. But we always celebrate anyway and doesn’t really matter.”

You must also love serving and making food, if you don’t like that, then Conway says this is the wrong business for you to be in. Conroy’s students are ready to hit the ground running in this industry. Conroy wanted his students to learn from this experience and carry it over to next years Kitchen Wars and beyond.

“I honestly have to say this is the hardest working group of individuals I’ve ever seen. Two teachers, five students and they worked their behinds off the last three days.”

Also Lakewood High School administrators and Chef James Conroy wants Lakewood High to have a better reputation after having his extraordinary event.

“This is what Lakewood is about now, there bad stories about Lakewood, the kids in Lakewood, about the families. They’re great families in Lakewood, they’re the best kids I ever taught. “

Chef James Conroy has no plans of leaving Lakewood High School but he like to help implement this program to other schools in Monmouth and Ocean County.

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