Herald/Steven Doll - Patrick Middleton looks through the inventory of available ingredients in the pantry for the contestants as he prepares his appetizer while competing in the “Chopped” contest Thursday at Central Texas College.

By Iuliana Petre

Killeen Daily Herald

In the culinary arts department at Central Texas College last week, food items weren't the only thing on the chopping block as six students enrolled in the Basic Food Preparation course competed for the grand prize in a spin-off competition based on the Food Network's fast-paced series "Chopped."

The six students – Christina Hickox, Vernon Kellnhofer, Patrick Middleton, Stephanie Sarmiento, Zachary Tyre and Willie Malone – each started the competition with the same set of kitchen essentials – measuring cups and spoons of varying sizes, knives, cutting boards, burners, pots and pans – and the same three ingredients for the appetizer course – deveined shrimp, button mushrooms and almonds.

They were required to prepare an authentic dish to present to the judges, Erica Stemmons-White, a community relations and marketing director for the college; Keolani Moore, an advanced culinary arts student; and Velma Ross, a culinary instructor at the college.

The judges tasted each dish and deliberated as to which of the six students best met the criteria in the categories of most creative dish, plate presentation and best use of the ingredients.

The students were given 60 minutes for each course. Two students were cut after the appetizer course and two more were cut after the entree course. The final two competed for "top chef."

The ingredients for each course were randomly selected by Chef Ramona Lezo, a hospitality department instructor. The student-chefs were not restricted to cooking only with the ingredients selected for them and could use any of the items available in the pantry, which included a wide variety of dairy products, fruit, vegetables, herbs, seasonings and spices.

Hickox, Kellnhofer, Sarmiento and Malone went on to compete with entrees, and Lezo selected three new ingredients: red snapper, Parmesan cheese and orzo.

For the two students – Sarmiento and Malone – who competed for the "top chef" title in the desserts course, the required ingredients were mangos, pecans, yogurt and powdered sugar.

"This entire semester they followed recipes," Lezo said. "This is a chance for them to be creative. It's not for a grade; it's just for fun."

And although the competition seemed simple, it was a lot harder for the amateur chefs who scurried about the kitchen, selecting ingredients from the pantry, chopping, slicing, dicing and cooking hurriedly.

The judges, deliberations were equally challenging as they got harder to judge because the plates only got better.

"The second cut (after the entree course) was a little bit harder because it required us to pick the plates apart and be more critical," Ross said. "Everything was excellent, but of course, we could only have two people going into finals."

By the final deliberation, the judges required a lot of time to formulate a decision. Sarmiento emerged as the winner after more than 10 minutes of intense discussion by the judges.

"The plate presentations were wonderful, the flavors were good, but we can only have one winner," Ross said, adding that Sarmiento won the competition because the judges could taste the mangos in her dessert, whereas Malone's dessert lacked that flavor.

Sarmiento who walked in late to the first round of the competition never imagined she would win, but she gained control of her cooking by the second round, she said.

"It feels good (to have won). I'm glad I competed against (Malone). It was more of a challenge competing against him," she said.

As "top chef," Sarmiento won a new set of Wusthof-brand knives.

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