Eastside High School Culinary Team Wins Sixth Place In National Competition

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(From left) Erin Livingston, Laurie Borden, Morgan Wesley and Peyton Agliaca practice with the management and culinary team at the Hampton Inn. Eastside High School ranked among the Elite 50 Hospitality Schools. Photo Courtesy Billie DeNunzio

Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts is serving up more than your average meals, especially after placing sixth in a national competition.

A group of five students from Eastside left town on Friday for Anaheim, California, to compete in the National Prostart Invitational, a competition including students from around the globe put on by the National Restaurant Association.

The competition ended on Monday with an award ceremony.

“We are extremely excited,” said Billie DeNunzio, director of Eastside’s Institute of Culinary Arts. “It will look great on their resume.”

After winning a state competition earlier this year, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store sponsored the institute’s team and paid for their flights and hotel accommodations. The team’s remaining expenses were covered by the Florida Restaurant Association, DeNunzio said.

DeNunzio said students were internally selected to attend the competition based on tryouts. Although only five attended, DeNunzio said the entire class learns from the team’s preparation process.

“Competition breeds excellence,” she said. “They have a goal, and they all teach each other.”

Aside from the desire to learn, DeNunzio said students want to attend these competitions for the scholarships offered by major schools and companies in the restaurant industry.

“The stakes are very high for scholarships,” she said. “That’s what they are really going for.”

Although the team did not end up receiving any scholarships, DeNunzio said it will look great on their resume and will still help them to get scholarships for the schools they are attending.

The students who participated in the competition practiced multiple times throughout the day leading up to the competition by coming into school early to go over cooking techniques and practice their presentations.

“They have put so much work into it every day,” she said. “They have learned a tremendous amount about the industry.”

Brittany Helm, a senior at Eastside High School and one of the students who attended the competition, said the trip was worth it for all the experience she gained.

Helm competed in a management portion, where she had to give a presentation pitching a restaurant she designed, complete with marketing tactics and a menu, to judges and investors.

“We were prepared,” she said. “I was a ball of nerves at first, but we know it so well, it just flows.”

This competition allows students to take in everything they have learned and apply it, Helm said.

“We know we have practiced hard enough to go out there and do what we know,” she said. “I have learned so much at this point.”

DeNunzio said part of the program’s success is due in part to the work they do in the community.

Students in the program volunteer at various events put on by the local rotary, including the Stop Children’s Cancer Gala and the local Ronald McDonald house. From preparing and serving food to raising money for charities, the students have made an active effort to become engaged with the community.

This year, Eastside High School was the only school in Florida to rank on the Elite 50 Hospitality Schools, according to the National Center for Hospitality Studies at Sullivan University.

The center, based out of Louisville, Kentucky, puts together the annual list of the best secondary culinary programs in the nation, which looks at “high schools and tech centers that excel in the areas of culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, and/or hospitality management,” according to its website.

“The students were elated,” DeNunzio said. “Most of our students go to culinary schools. It makes a huge difference.”

In previous years, the list was comprised of 100 schools. This is the first year it has been condensed to 50. About 340 schools applied this year, said Carrie Shain, associate director of admission at Sullivan University.

This is also the first year the hospitality programs were based on an application rather than Sullivan University doing independent research, according to Shain. The schools have to submit documentation about their program, including recipes, student essays, the number of competitions they have won and events outside of their program.

“I’s really just a way for them to brag on their program and really highlight what they do in the school and in their community to really encourage the hospitality career field for these students,” Shain said.

Aside from receiving recognition from the nation’s top culinary schools, schools that make the list get a large banner and plaque along with T-shirts for students in the program.

“It’s great for the teachers to have to show their administration the quality in their program and that it’s recognized nationwide,” Shain said.

Jeff Charbonnet, principal of Eastside High School, gives credit to the teachers and students of the program for the ranking.

“Recognition among the Elite 50 assures colleges and employers of the quality of our graduates,” Charbonnet said. “This opens up excellent opportunities for our students to further their educations and their careers.”

There are about 102 students in the two-year magnet program at Eastside. With hospitality being one of Florida’s top industries, DeNunzio said it’s important to get students started early.

“It’s getting students aware of (the industry) when they are young enough,” she said. “That’s what these magnet programs are about. You find out what you really want.”

Eastside’s program made the top 100 list for the past two years, which DeNunzio said gives the students pride in their program.

“It makes you strive harder,” she said. “It keeps you going, and it keeps the students going.”

About Rebecca Rubin

Rebecca is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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