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Cooking with Fire in a High School Culinary Class

With incredible poise and delicious food, five teenage chefs from New Jersey recently won a statewide competition. Listen to our audio story to hear them prepare for nationals—and a world beyond the kitchen.
culinary class Keven Mallqui
High school chefs José Dominguez, Soleil Colon, Jayden Gonzalez, Nellie Beato and Leslie Minaya with their award-winning, three-course dinner.
Published: May 21, 2024

Chef Ron Ossi's classroom at Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, N.J., is sizzling! Five of his students—Nellie Beato, Soleil Colon, José Dominguez, Jayden Gonzalez, and Leslie Minaya—recently won the state's ProStart competition. Their luscious three-course meal, including a five-layer dessert, was cooked entirely on two propane stoves in just 60 minutes. No running water. No electricity. Hear from Ossi and the young chefs on what they're doing to prepare for nationals and life beyond high school.

Snap and Sizzle! Listen to Chef Ossi's Students at Work.

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Kitchen sounds: Nellie, you still need this garlic? No, chef. [Hiss of pressure cooker.] José, check on the tuiles. Yes, chef. Leslie, time? Mary Ellen Flannery: These are the sounds of an award-winning kitchen, staffed by a team of five high school students in New Jersey. I’m Mary Ellen Flannery from NEA Today — and I happen to love food and public schools — so of course I am here to report on the amazing culinary program that NEA Member Ron Ossi is running at Passaic County Technical Institute. Kitchen noise: Sanitizing my station? Heard! Flannery: Chef Ossi’s team just won the state ProStart culinary competition for the second year in a row. Today they’re practicing for nationals, where they hope to do even better than they did last year, which was a top 10 finish. Ron Ossi: So with this they’re judged on sanitation, organization, knife cuts, knife usage, taste, texture, presentation— they also have to prepare a procedure and costing book [fade out] Flannery: So basically it’s a three-course meal that has to look and taste great. They do it all in 60 minutes on two propane stoves, no running water, no electricity. Kitchen sound: Are you guys done with compote? There are four chefs—one for each course plus a floater, and a team manager. That manager is freshman Leslie Minaya, who make sure everybody is on task and on time. Kitchen noise: Burner off! Leslie, time? 15 minutes! Heard! [1:20] The first course is a white polenta cake, dotted with diced red peppers—all cut to exactly the same size by chef Nellie Beato. Kitchen noise: Oil temp is at 225! On top is a golden fried shrimp with a beautiful curling antenna. Nellie first got into cooking when she came to this country in middle school. Nellie: I didn’t really make friends throughout middle school because I didn’t understand the language. What I really resorted to was food. I went home. I made food. I had fun! Once I came to high school and saw that I could have fun making food, that I could compete for my future, I was like this is what I have to do. [fade] Kitchen noise: Changing gloves? 14 minutes Flannery: The main course is senior Jayden Gonzalez’s. It’s a plate of osso buco over sautéed spinach and handmade gnocchi. Jayden Gonzalez: Right now I’m cutting up my parsley for my citrus gremolata. Then I’m going to put in my pan and toast it so it adds a crunch factor to my plate. I always loved to cook. In a Hispanic household, my grandmother would always cook for us so I gathered the courage to ask to learn. My grandmother taught me a lot and I just evolved. Leslie: 13 minutes! Flannery: Many of Chef Ossi’s students go into culinary careers. Jayden is already working in a restaurant kitchen. Kitchen noise: Releasing the steam! Flannery: Because they placed first in New Jersey, they’ve already won thousands of scholarship dollars for culinary school. But not all of these kids will become professional chefs and that’s okay. Leslie: 11 minutes! Flannery: What they’re learning goes far beyond knife skills. It’s communication. It’s teamwork. This is team captain Soleil Colon. SOLEIL: We’re not just making cookies, you know? You’re all over the place. You’re getting pulled all over the kitchen. It teaches you how to work in a very stressful environment and just keep your calm. Calm, cool, and collected. We always try to be: calm, cool, collected. Leslie: 10 minutes! Flannery: The last course is a killer dessert—the judges absolutely love it—and it is entirely Soleil’s invention. Colon: It’s very tedious, done by hand, obviously. I think I’m going to do two layers right now, and the final layer will go on once that sets. Leslie: 9 minutes! Flannery: Dessert is five layers of raspberry and white chocolate mousse with a coconut base and a side of lime ice cream, which the floater chef, Jose Dominguez, shakes by hand. Kitchen noises: Shaking sounds. Flannery: Because the dessert is so complicated, Soleil gets most of Jose’s time as floater. Leslie: 5 minutes! Nellie: Sometimes he knows what I’m asking for and I don’t even say the actual word for it. Jose Gonzalez: She just like mumbles a little bit. Nellie: I’m like José, I need the thing! I need the thing right now! And he just grabs it, you know? So we work very very well together. Leslie: 3 minutes, 15 seconds! Heard! Flannery: Overseeing all of this is Chef Ossi, who has been teaching at Passaic since he left the restaurant business. Ossi: I treat them like my own children. Leslie: 2 minutes, 35 minutes! Heard! Flannery: In the last few minutes, the team IS calm, cool and collected. Leslie: Fifty-nine seconds! Jayden: Heard! Leslie: Come on guys! Jayden: Presenting plates! Ossi: Come on, Leslie, take it home. Leslie: Come on, Soleil. Soleil: Hands up, hands up! Done! Applause! Flannery: When they’re finished, not only do the three courses look beautiful, but every pot and pan is put away. The counters are spotless. And their white chef jackets? Not a single stain. And the food? Well, I tried it, of course! Ossi: You want to change your life? Try the dessert. Flannery: Ohh, I’d love to try the dessert! It looks amazing. Ossi: So you got all your textures. You got your crush on the bottom, you got your raspberries, in the center, your vanilla mousse and your chocolate. Try that bad boy. And you gotta try the ice cream too because that is phenomenal. Flannery: It was phenomenal. This is Mary Ellen Flannery from NEA Today.
Mary Ellen Flannery

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.