SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge

SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge

By Cathy Kiley

It is clearly understood that our economic future depends not only on the continuing creation of new jobs, but on the mentoring of our youth to become educated and reliable members of society. Many respected Lehigh Valley companies offer internships to our high school and college students to indoctrinate them to the internal operations of their companies as well as their products and/or services. These same companies send representatives to colleges to attract prospective future employees at job fairs and symposiums all in the hope of attracting the best candidates.

SkillsUSA Council is yet another example of fostering positive business/educational partnerships. This non-profit coalition of 72 area business and industry partners is committed to creating a world-class workforce through career and technical training. For nearly 30 years, SkillsUSA Council has partnered with thousands of local career and technical (Vo-tech) high school students throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley to promote effective training in professional skills necessary for today’s working environment.

The challenge is great, offering a wonderful opportunity for teaching and learning while affording the culinary students actual time in a working commercial kitchen.

According to Executive Director Thea Phalon, SkillsUSA Council (Lehigh Valley VICA Industry Council) was created in 1985 with cooperation by area businesses including the Fuller Company, Mack Trucks, Air Products, Alvin H. Butz Construction, PPL and Bethlehem Steel. The Council was chaired by Elmer Gates (formerly of Fuller Company) and served as a “link” between industry and trade schools. The Council (now SkillsUSA) also gained support from the National Vocational and Industrial Clubs of America and was recognized as a model of vocational and industry cooperation. Phalon noted that although these partnerships were attempted in other cities throughout the United States, it never succeeded as it did in the Lehigh Valley, due mainly to the abundance of manufacturing companies located here. She further states that although the Lehigh Valley SkillsUSA Council is affiliated with the National SkillsUSA organization, it operates as an independent entity.

SkillsUSA organizes workshops, conferences and competitions to promote its mission throughout the Lehigh Valley. One fun and exciting competition (and one very interesting to this food writer) is the SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge. The challenge was conceived six years ago by the SkillsUSA Alumni Committee as a competition to engage local professional chefs and culinary students in friendly competition. The response has been overwhelming.

Every March, five local chefs take two culinary students (chosen by their home schools) under their wings. They meet in advance and “draw knives” to determine the theme of their dish and serving order. After this initial meeting, the chefs are allowed only one day in advance of the competition to meet with their students to finalize their preparation plans. They prepare their dishes in only a couple of hours in advance of the event itself, which is a fundraiser for SkillsUSA.

The SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge has been hosted each year by Lehigh County Technical Institute on Lehigh Carbon Community College campus. Executive Chefs Shawn Doyle from Savory Grille and Randy Zerfass of Northampton Country Club have participated in the challenge every year since inception. They, along with their students, are past competition winners – Zerfass in 2012 (students Israel Marcano and Zachary Zambrana-Bethlehem Area Vo Tech) and 2013 (students Tyler Shulman and Jaclyn VanBilliard-Bethlehem Area Vo Tech) and Doyle in 2010 (student Samantha Cancro Lehigh Career and Technical Institute). Other participating chefs (and winners) have included Chefs Susan Roth, Gregory Caracappa, David Goulet, Greg Zornek, Steven Sundberg, Matthew McCall and Christopher Heath.

According to Chefs Randy Zerfass and Shawn Doyle, the SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge is a great opportunity to “hang out with old friends – together for the same purpose” which is to be there for the kids. The challenge is great, offering a wonderful opportunity for teaching and learning while affording the culinary students actual time in a working commercial kitchen.

Winners of the SkillsUSA competition are invited to compete each winter in the District 11 championships at Allentown Fairgrounds’ Agricultural Hall. Event Manager Chef Doyle heads up every aspect of this Culinary Arts competition while other area chefs assist in the judging. District 11 winners go on to a state competition in Hershey in April and then on to Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky. These competitions offer a wonderful opportunity for area culinary students to develop and demonstrate their skills while affording area restaurants and culinary schools a view to those talented students who are the future of the food industry.

The annual SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge is being planned now for March 2015. The committee is in the process of finalizing details including the list of participating chefs that already includes Chefs Doyle and Zerfass. This event is always well-attended. It is truly a creative and fun culinary evening that is guaranteed to bring out the best in our local culinary students while, at the same time, delight the palate with a multi-course gourmet experience.

Additional details regarding SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge will be posted on the SkillsUSA website. Log onto for more information and plan to go out and support the 2015 SkillsUSA Culinary Challenge.

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