Competition is a sure-fire way to test a chef’s skills in the kitchen.

And after judging Thursday’s contest at Central Texas College, every student whose food I tasted has what it takes to make it in the food industry.

With renovations underway in the kitchens, the usual team cooking competition was replaced with an individual contest based on Food Network’s “Chopped” series.

Twelve students were chosen by instructors to compete, beginning with an appetizer that had to include chicken breast, couscous, puff pastry, clam juice and Pepperdoux peppers. Using other items in the pantry, the chefs had 30 minutes to plate a dish.

Then my work of tasting began.

Along with judges Scot Noble, president of the Culinary/Hospitality Arts Club and an instructor in the culinary department, and Virgil Guy, a CTC graduate who works in the food industry and teaches continuing education classes, we worked our way through 12 appetizers, many using puff pastry with other ingredients stuffed inside.

Everything was delicious, especially a dish with fresh salsa on top, and we had a tough time cutting the competition to seven.

Tige Brooks, Raul Rios, Madi Hinman, Guadalupe Saldivar, Yliris Finney, Mackenzie Treer and Nicholas Lindley had one hour to prepare an entree with two side dishes using pork loin, orzo, tomatoes, marshmallows and lady fingers.

During the second round of judging, we tasted a wider variety of food styles — all of them delicious.

Cutting the competition to two finalists was more difficult than even I imagined.

Left standing were Brooks and Finney. They had the formidable task

of preparing dessert in 45 minutes using oats, coconut cream and dried Thai chili peppers.

After several minutes of deliberation, Scot, Virgil and I declared Brooks the winner for best showcasing the required ingredients.

But it was a close call.

I’d order both desserts if I saw them on menus.

In fact, I’d order most of what I tasted last week again.

In my fourth year of judging competitions for the culinary program, this was by far the best overall day of cooking I’ve seen.

There’s always a dish I won’t forget — like Brooks’ oatmeal cookies — but this year, I walked away most impressed by how well all the chefs did.

Their creativity and execution under trying circumstances showed how much they’ve learned and how well CTC’s instructors prepare them for the future.

I won’t be surprised if I see some of those chefs competing on the real “Chopped” show or other televised culinary contests some day.

Contact M. Clare Haefner at or (254) 501-7551.

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