WILMINGTON – While most St. Mark’s High School students had scattered following another day of midterm exams, eight Spartans headed to a second-floor classroom for one more test. It may have been more of a challenge than pre-calc or psychology.
The five girls and three boys quickly got to work. But instead of calculators and pens, their tools included cutting boards and stand mixers, and the final grade would not come from their teacher, but from two St. Mark’s graduates who were uniquely qualified to render a decision.
The occasion was the St. Mark’s Cook-off, an “Iron-Spartan Chef America”-like battle pitting two teams of culinary arts students against each other. The four-person teams, who had survived from the original nine, had to make a soup, pasta and pesto, and frozen dessert, which were judged by Dan Butler, a 1978 alumnus who owns Piccolina Toscana, Deep Blue and Brandywine Prime, and Matt Curtis, a member of the Class of 1988 and the owner of Union City Grille.
As the smells from the classroom kitchen – more formally known as the family and consumer sciences lab – drifted into the hallways, the student chefs kept their attention on the work that needed to be done.
Senior Nicole Valente stirred a simmering butter and cornstarch mixture that would add some consistency to her team’s cheeseburger soup. She said the students were there because “we love food. It’s just something that’s useful to know, basic stuff.”
Valente’s teammates were seniors Dominique Tee, Elizabeth Fasy and Kelly Brown.
One of her competitors, junior Chris Matt, was busy working on his team’s cream of asparagus soup, his trademark plaid apron covering his white shirt and tie.
“Everybody laughs at me, but I love it,” he said of the apron.
Matt, whose team included seniors Patrick Bonk and Patrick Murphy, and junior Erin Roney, said the culinary arts class is very popular at St. Mark’s, with two sections of 30 students. He wants to be a state trooper but said cooking is a valuable skill.
“I love cooking,” he said. “I’m always cooking with my mom-mom, helping her out.”
Donna DiUbaldo, who teaches culinary arts, watched intently as the students worked. This is the third time she has held a cook-off, and the students were very excited about the opportunity. Preliminary rounds began in the fall. Before they get to cook, however, students are required to take prerequisite foods classes, which include nutrition instruction and other bookwork, followed by practice making soups, sauces, pasta and sandwiches.
“I want them to be able to cook when they get out of here and make everyday stuff that they would enjoy. They know now that they can do it because that’s what they say, ‘I never realized it didn’t take that much work to get it done.’ They have greatly enjoyed it,” DiUbaldo said.
The two professional chefs enjoyed the afternoon at St. Mark’s. Butler said he took four years of cooking classes, and the school didn’t even offer four years.
“My last year I was already working at the Hotel DuPont. I had time, and the teachers said if you want to take another year, just come on by,” he said. “I think to this day I might be the only kid who’s taken four years of the culinary program.”
Butler said it was encouraging to see so much interest in the classes. He said there is always room in the field for educated professionals.
His fellow judge, Curtis, didn’t take culinary arts at the school, but he spent a lot of his free time thinking about food.
“I started working in restaurants when I was 15, sophomore year. I was enthralled in all my cookbooks at the time, and in my study halls here I was studying the cookbooks. I wasn’t studying to be a doctor,” he joked.
He said he would like to see the program grow, and he was glad to help. He and Butler spent some time speaking to the students as they worked, but the kids seemed to have everything under control.
“I love to see them working together. Just like the restaurant business, when you’re a chef on the line, you try to coordinate your salad station, your grill station, and your pasta station. Everyone’s working in unison to do this, to get the dish out,” Curtis said.
When the cooking was complete, it was time for judgment. As in “Iron Chef America,” the young chefs explained to Butler and Curtis each of their dishes and how they went about preparing them.
The pair wrote down notes as they ate, trying not to give any hint of where they stood.
Butler, however, told the one team how impressed he was with their dessert, a raspberry ginger sorbet. He said he would serve that in his restaurants, a comment that generated much excitement among the students.
After the tasting was over, Curtis and Butler headed to another classroom to compare notes and come up with final scores. Before announcing the winner, they discussed the positives of the students’ efforts, and they shared some constructive criticism.
Butler hesitated before declaring that the red kitchen – Roney, Matt, Bonk and Murphy – edged the yellow kitchen by one point.
Murphy said the chefs’ comments made a lot of sense.
“There’s stuff that you and me wouldn’t taste that they can taste, the mix of two different things and how they offset each other, things like that,” he said. “I think they’re very accurate, the comments they made, and I think they are very fair.”
Murphy, who hopes to find a cooking elective or club in college, said DiUbaldo deserves much of the credit for the popularity of the class.
“The time she puts in at the grocery stores and coming to school before to prepare everything. She does a great job. And this is all thanks to her. We couldn’t have done it without her,” he said.
DiUbaldo had a simpler explanation for why students flocked to the class, which attracts more boys than girls. “They’re teenagers, and they like to eat.”