COLUMBIA — After placing second in the district and state SkillsUSA culinary competitions as a high school junior, Rachel Koppelman decided to amend her priorities.
She quit competitive swimming and started spending more time in the kitchen — and has seen her increased efforts come to fruition.
During her senior year, the 2009-2010 school year at Rock Bridge High School, Koppelman, 19, won the district, state and national SkillsUSA competitions. SkillsUSA is a career and technical organization for students. In October 2011, she will represent the United States at the WorldSkills Competition in London.
The international event is held every two years and features more than 1,000 competitors from 53 countries. Cooking is one of 45 occupational skill challenges held at the four-day competition, which only admits contestants under the age of 23.
Koppelman said her interest in cooking stemmed from the time she spent baking with her mother at home. During her sophomore year, she started honing her skills through culinary courses at the Columbia Area Career Center. As a junior, she began competing with SkillsUSA. She also worked as a line cook at Bleu Restaurant & Wine Bar and Stadium Bar and Grill.
While Koppelman enjoys cooking competitions, she admits they can be hectic and stressful.
“You really have to manage your time to get everything done,” she said.
Her senior year, the winning run to London almost came to an abrupt end when she turned in a dish after the allotted time expired during the state competition.
“I thought it was over,” Koppelman said. “I was bawling my eyes out to my mom and I figured, 'Well, that’s it.'”
But she made it through, and in June, she won the national title.
Koppelman said she’s glad to see her hard work pay off, but is still surprised by her success.
“It was something that I didn’t expect,” she said. “It’s doesn’t always sink in. It’s hard to believe I’m representing my country.”
After graduating from Rock Bridge in June, Koppelman enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N. Y. At the institute, she takes eight hours of classes a day as chefs mentor her through the process of preparing for WorldSkills. Training begins Thursday, she said.
Cooking competitions aside, Koppelman is enjoying her time at the institute. She plans on graduating in 2014, and hopes to gain experience working in the kitchens of New York.
“But eventually,” she said, “I’d love to settle down and have a small, local restaurant.”