COLUMBIA — Two recent Columbia high school graduates cooked their way through district and state competitions to compete — and win — at the national SkillsUSA culinary competition on Thursday.
Hailey King, a 2013 Rock Bridge High School graduate, took first place in the culinary arts division, and Heather Pitt, a 2013 Hickman High School graduate, took first place in commercial baking in Bartle Hall in Kansas City. There were 40 competitors in the commercial baking and 43 in the culinary arts competition, all of whom had won state-level competitions to qualify.
Both women earned not only first place, but also full four-year scholarships to their choice of top culinary schools.
King, the third Missouri student to win the culinary arts division, began her cooking career her sophomore year in high school, inspired by reading through a course catalogue.
Brook Harlan, one of the chefs who instructed the pair at the Columbia Area Career Center, said King was responsible for preparing a preset menu under the watchful eyes of 10 to 15 judges, who prowled around the room looking for flaws in cooking methods, including sanitation and organization.
King prepared a variety of foods, including sautéed chicken, rice pilaf and poached salmon with parsley and potatoes.
Pitt is the first Missouri student to win the commercial baking competition and has been interested in baking since she was a little kid.
“My family has been in the restaurant business for generations and generations,” Pitt said, attributing to this her "love of bringing people together through food.”
Pitt was responsible for a variety of desserts under the same high-pressure conditions as King. Her dishes included whipped cream-filled puff pastries, pumpkin bread and cake decorations. Pitt remained tight-lipped about her preparation and strategies before and during the competition.
"We can't reveal our secrets," Pitt said. "Our instructors don't want us to give away too much."
The women spent an entire year learning under the instruction of chefs Harlan, Carri Risner and Jeff Rayl of the Culinary Arts Program at the Columbia Area Career Center.
“Since starting the program sixteen years ago, we have grown tremendously,” Rayl said. “It is great to have swept the culinary and baking competitions.”
The Career Center has trained three of the past four Culinary Arts national champions. Harlan said the challenge is not in watching the competition but waiting for the results.
"It's easier to watch the competition than it is waiting the 24 hours after the competition when we know the results," Harlan said. "That's more nerve wracking than anything."
Both women are grateful to their instructors.
“Without the chefs being there for me 24/7, I wouldn’t have been successful,” King said.
King and Pitt are both currently weighing the pros and cons of attending either Johnson and Wales University or the Culinary Institute of America. Both women said they want to pursue careers in cooking.
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