COLUMBIA — Will Kinney sliced off the stems of the spinach leaves, knowing that every little detail set him apart from the rest.
He works with the attention of a seasoned professional. One would hardly guess that the recent high school graduate has been developing his cooking technique for only two years.
If you're interested in cooking the dish discussed in this article, you'll find the recipe for the entree here.
Kinney spent his senior year at Rock Bridge High School and the beginning of the summer preparing for the SkillsUSA National Culinary Arts Contest.
He placed first in the June 26 competition and became the second contestant to win from Missouri.
“It was one of those things where I really had no idea. I didn’t know what my competition would be,” Kinney said.
“We tried to perfect every little thing that I did to try to make it better. I definitely thought I was going to do well, but by the time the competition itself rolled around and I competed, I didn’t think I’d do as well as I did.”
On Wednesday morning, Kinney prepared one of the dishes at his house that had helped him win the five-hour competition in June. The entree was composed of brown rice, glazed carrots, sauteed spinach, sauteed chicken breast and supreme sauce, a cream-based sauce with mushroooms.
Kinney first gained an interest in cooking from his family. However, he didn't want to be a chef due to the long hours.
That all changed when he took his first culinary class during his junior year at Rock Bridge and helped out at Jules Crespy's fundraiser for the national competition. Seeing the older student prepare for the SkillsUSA contest made him realize that he wanted to be in her position this year.
"I made that my goal," Kinney said. "I was there after school every day staying in the kitchen until 5 o’clock, just doing things, learning things, learning how to run the kitchen, learning how to break down the kitchen, doing prep work, doing catering events at school — anything that could in the end make me a better cook.”
As Kinney moved his creations to the stove, the room filled with sounds and smells. The chicken sizzled in the pan as he poured a honey mixture over the carrots. He had practiced this entree so many times that he could probably prepare it in his sleep.
Cooking comes naturally to Kinney and so does striving for a level of perfection that the competition required.
“The biggest thing students can come in with is passion for cooking,” said Brook Harlan, one of the three Rock Bridge culinary instructors who taught Kinney and prepared him for the competition. “Will’s great at technique and critiquing himself.”
And just because the competition is over doesn’t mean that Kinney has stopped working toward a future that revolves around cooking.
This summer he is working as a prep and line cook at Sycamore, a downtown restaurant that Kinney considers the best in town.
He works with Mallory Barnes, a former classmate who took fourth place at the SkillsUSA competition. Barnes and Kinney became close while training for the competition together in September.
"Will and I are total opposites. We work well together, I calm him down and he pushes me to do better," Barnes said.
"He's also a perfectionist, he has to put the best out there," she said.
This fall, Kinney will attend the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in New York, where he will participate in the collaborative degree program with the Culinary Institute of America.
Kinney said this program gives him the best of both worlds because he is interested in both restaurant management and cooking. The joint program allows him to earn degrees from both schools in four years, rather than six.
The recent high school graduate said he's sure that he'll end up in the hospitality industry in one form or another.
“Currently I’d like to keep cooking, but I don’t have any experience managing. So in a year I may decide that I like managing better than cooking. The hospitality industry is so large that I could find myself working in wine. Who knows where it’ll take me.”
After about an hour of preparation and cooking, Kinney's first entree is done. He arranges the brown rice, carrots, chicken, spinach and supreme sauce close together in a “high and tight” arrangement, which keeps the food warm.
It's this attention to detail and presentation that helped him stand out in nationals, he said.
"I love the idea of being able to create something out of nothing.”
But he's not going to eat any of the entree.
"I’m sick of it,” Kinney said.
After he spent almost a year perfecting that dish, it's hard to blame him.