Teen cooks up path to culinary school

schandler@newsobserver.comSeptember 1, 2013 

  • Other local winners

    The other competitors in the final round of the Chef’s Academy’s Top Teen Talent Scholarship Competition also received scholarships. Locally, Taylor Thompson of Cary High School and Adam Kingrea of Southern High School in Durham won $1,000 each.

  • Brianna’s winning recipe

    Here’s the recipe that collected enough Facebook likes to propel Brianna Meeks into the final competition:

    Buffalo Chicken Bacon and Ranch Casserole

    1.5 lbs chicken breast

    1.5 lbs potatoes (medium dice)

    8 oz bacon

    3 tablespoons hot sauce (add more if desired)

    1.5 cup sour cream (or cream cheese)

    1/2 cup ranch dressing

    1 cup shredded cheese

    2 tsp salt

    2 tsp pepper

    1 tsp paprika

    2 oz olive oil

    Procedure:

    1. In a bowl, combine oil and seasonings to create a liquid mixture.

    2. Cut the potatoes into a medium dice and add them to the seasonings mixture. Coat the potatoes in the mixture and scoop out the potatoes, leaving the rest of the mixture to cover the chicken (later on).

    3. Bake the potatoes at 400 F, covered, for about 40-45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent sticking.

    4. Cut up the chicken into medium dice and cover the chicken in the rest of the seasoned mixture. Cook the chicken fully in a sauté pan.

    5. Cut the bacon into a medium dice, cook the bacon in a sauté pan, and dry off any excess grease.

    5. Pull the potatoes out and mix the chicken in with the potatoes. Add the bacon, sour cream, and cheese and mix it all together.

    6. Put the dish back in the oven for about 15 minutes or until hot.

    7. Add the ranch to the top of the dish and serve.

Brianna Meeks used to watch cooking competitions on TV and think, “I could never do that.” But that was before she aced a local cooking competition to win a full-tuition scholarship to The Chef’s Academy in Morrisville.

Brianna, who lives in Burlington and started culinary arts classes at the school about a month ago, started her climb to the top of the Top Teen Talent Scholarship Competition with a recipe called “Buffalo Chicken Bacon and Ranch Casserole” posted on the contest’s Facebook page. The aspiring chefs behind the nine recipes that received the most “likes” were invited to the Chef’s Academy to compete for scholarships. They were interviewed by a panel of judges, but first it was time to roll up their sleeves and show off their skills.

The competitors had an hour and 45 minutes to create a chicken dish with a side of rice pilaf and glazed carrots. The students received the recipes about a month in advance so they could practice at home.

“I got the hang of it pretty fast,” Brianna said of cooking under a time limit. “I just tried to focus on what I was doing. I practiced and practiced and wrote all these notecards down to look at and I was so nervous, and then when I got in there I didn’t even look at any of the notecards I had written. I just went off of my memory, and apparently it worked.”

One key to her success, said Brianna, was not only getting all the food ready before time was up, but also not getting it ready too early.

“You have to get everything done at the same time,” she explained. “Some of my competitors had their rice done 15 minutes before the competition was even over, so it had to sit there, and the more it sits, you know, the worse it gets.” With some practice at home, she said, she was able to get everything ready at the same time, with only 5 minutes left before it was time to put it all on a plate and serve it to the waiting judges.

But even before this competition, Brianna was putting in lots of practice time in the kitchen. At a young age, she started hanging out in the kitchen while her dad cooked, and it wasn’t long before she wanted to help out. She started out making grilled cheese sandwiches, but she soon branched out from there.

“As I got older, I just started making more dishes, I got more in-depth with it. Then my parents would ask me to throw something together on the fly, so I would just throw something together and they really liked it,” said Brianna, who turned 18 last week.

“I never have gone off recipes,” she continued. “I just kind of create my own thing. If they gave me a recipe that they wanted me to make I would put my own spin on it. So that’s when I really knew I was talented at it.”

In her last two years at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, she decided she wanted to make a career of cooking. But college and culinary school seemed out of reach financially. Her mother has recently recovered from a battle with cancer, and her father has struggled with asthma and severe allergies for most of Brianna’s life, meaning much of the family’s income must go toward medical bills.

“It was a great feeling” when she learned she won the Chef’s Academy scholarship, worth $40,000, Brianna said. “I knew I’d be having to run myself into the ground just to pay for college, so I didn’t want to have to do that to me or my family. Once I found out I won, it was a completely different mindset. I was really happy about it.”

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