This final four is all about the food

They move with precision: a huddle here, a handoff there. It's all done with single-minded purpose, keeping an eye on the prize. The only difference is the playing surface: a kitchen.

Culinary kudos: A squadron of A-B Tech culinary students will be one of four teams competing in a prestigious national cooking contest. Led by coach Charles deVries (center), the team practices each Monday. Photo by Jason Sandford

Since winning a regional competition April, A-B Tech's Hot Food Team has been practicing hard. The win put them in the "final four" of national college cooking, and next month, team members Michael Aanonsen, Steven Goff, Travis McCloud, Anna McClintock and Shannon Ginn will compete against three other teams for the American Culinary Federation's national student championship.

It's been an exciting ride for a group whose school already boasted a national reputation for excellence in its hospitality and culinary programs. A-B Tech's team placed second in the finals in 2006 and won it all in 2007. Last year, the team barely failed to make the final four, losing by a mere 0.06 point in the regional.

"When the team steps off the bus in Orlando, it's game on," says Bronwen McCormick, who chairs A-B Tech's culinary arts and hospitality program. "They're representing A-B Tech, and they do a beautiful job with that."

Each Monday, the team gathers for practice, trying to simulate the real contest's pressure-cooker conditions. In Orlando, the kitchens will be set up in a convention hall where people can buy tickets to watch. Each team will have four hours and 40 minutes to prepare and serve 24 plates each of an appetizer, a salad, an entrée and a dessert.

The A-B Tech team is focusing on attention to detail in the dishes and on really working together. During the competition, says Aanonsen, "You try not to get too cocky, because you can make little mistakes."

Each team begins with a total of 40 points, so they’re really fighting to maintain poise and perfection, notes Michelle Kelley, one of the local team’s three coaches. "Teams are judged on everything — cleanliness, organization, timing, cooking technique" and much more, she says. Scoring is "weighted toward taste, but it all adds up."

A-B Tech's actual menu is a closely guarded secret, says fellow coach Charles deVries, who teaches baking and pastry. The team won the regional with a classic fish dish, a salad of mixed greens with pine-nut-encrusted Brie, a pork tenderloin dish and a hazelnut-cream dessert. Might any of that be on the menu for the finals? DeVries isn't talking.

"We had a number of changes we made to our menu that are working out better than before. We're trying to find ways to get the most out of the food we're working with," he says.

In the finals, A-B Tech will be up against teams from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Pittsburgh Chapter; Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich.; and Kapi‘olani Community College in Honolulu.
The Asheville team is trying to raise $10,000 to cover the cost of its trip to the nationals. For more information, go to http://abtech.edu/buyamile/ or call Lee Sokol at 254-1921, ext. 244.

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