Ever cooked black squid ink ravioli? Bet you've never even seen it.
That's the entree that a team of Omaha high school seniors is planning to make this weekend at Metropolitan Community College's annual High School Culinary Invitational.
"It was hard at first," said Sophie Hug, 17. "But we've practiced it so many times."
Her teammate, Siarra Velasquez, also 17, chimed in: "So many times that I don't remember."
The teens, both seniors and culinary students at the Omaha Public Schools career center, are among 136 students from 18 area high schools planning to compete in timed challenges Friday and Saturday that are designed to put their skills to the test.
Most of the 33 teams will represent their schools, and many schools have more than one team. The two OPS teams, however, are made up of students from high schools across the district who attend culinary classes at the career center.
The competition is at Metro's Institute for the Culinary Arts near 30th and Fort Streets, and is open to the public.
While students strut their stuff around a kitchen, they can't use an oven. Each team can use only two burners and is required to make a full meal: an appetizer, main course, vegetable, starch and dessert in two hours.
The students' work will be judged by Metro culinary officials, local chefs and restaurateurs. The grand prize is a $1,000 scholarship to the college. Other first-place prizes include green chef jackets, a gift certificate to a culinary supply store and an eight-piece knife set.
Sarah Mimick's team is cooking Italian stacks, mussels, Brussels sprouts, polenta and ricotta pancakes.
The senior at Omaha Gross Catholic High School has been practicing with her team for weeks.
"We decide who is the best at a certain dish, and then that's who's doing it at the competition," said Mimick. "We find a way to see what works and what doesn't work."
The college has added a few twists this year, including a "Jeopardy"-style quiz bowl and requiring the students to create a business plan for a restaurant.
Many of the students who compete this weekend could end up students in the college's culinary program. Three out of the four young women on Hug's teams are aspiring chefs.
Velasquez is the only one who has set her sights differently; she likes to cook but wants to become a marine biologist.
"It's definitely a recruitment tool, getting kids to go to culinary school at Metro," said Joellen Zuk, one of the college's hospitality management coordinators.
Whether the students choose a career in the kitchen or not, culinary programs teach important skills, instructors say.
"So many of the students expand their palates," said Laura Bakker, an OPS culinary arts instructor who has been helping the students prepare for the weekend. "They learn to enjoy food and appreciate food."
A local chef who coaches the Gross students put it a little differently.
"If they're interested enough, they can learn how to make a meal and get a date when they get to college," joked John Schow, executive chef at Werner Park. "Enough with the mac and cheese."
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