Cooking Under Pressure 5

Student chef Katie Barnes meets the challenge

Katie Barnes didn’t always imagine herself as a cook. She enrolled at the University of Montana as an anthropology major, and it was when she was taking introductory classes at the Missoula College campus that she began noticing that the white coats coming out of the restaurant looked like students.

“I kept seeing people walking around in white chef’s coats,” Katie recalled. “ I didn’t even know then that we had a culinary program.”

She began inquiring about the program and it seemed to fit just what she wanted out of her education: It was demanding and asked her to constantly think and act on her feet. She enrolled in the four-semester program.

Two years later, Katie is helping to make a name for the Culinary Arts program. Last May, she traveled to Bellingham for the Washington State Chefs Association culinary competition. She entered the pastry division and took home the gold medal.

In February, Katie competed in the American Culinary Federation’s Student Chef of the Year competition in Joliet, Illinois, along with 10 other semifinalists. Competing against the best student chefs in the country, she earned a silver medal in the pastry division for her deep-fried malasada with a milk chocolate ganache accompanied by a blood orange caramel sauce, a slice of pineapple brushed with a vanilla bean simple syrup, and caramelized bananas; topped with a pineapple salad and a macadamia nut pineapple ice cream; and garnished with a macadamia tuile and a candied cilantro leaf. What a delicious mouthful!

For her successes Katie gives a lot of credit to the demanding nature of the Culinary Arts program.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she said. “I think we started with about 50 students and we’re graduating maybe eight.”

As Katie’s coach and Culinary Arts program director Chef Thomas Campbell said, “Our goal is for the students to come out of the program as consummate professionals.”

To be a professional in the hectic world of the kitchen requires an ability to work under constant pressure and always be multi-tasking, skills Katie has excelled at. Competition only adds another level of stress.

For the Student Chef of the Year competition, Katie had 15 minutes to set up, one hour to execute it, a 10-minute plating window, and a 15-minute clean-up. The pastry dish had to include bananas, macadamia nuts, and pineapples. Everything had to be made from scratch, even the ice cream. Participants were graded on sanitation, presentation, taste, texture and appearance.  Judges and other chefs were watching. It was a high-pressure environment.

“I feel so sick before competitions,” Katie admitted. “But as soon as the time starts, it’s gone.”

Competing on top of fulfilling the rigors of the Culinary Arts program has not only readied Katie for a career as a chef, it has also changed her fundamentally as a person.

“I’m not the same person I was two years ago,” she said. “[The program] builds confidence…. I had someone tell me once that I could never finish what I started. And I’d have to agree with that statement when I was high school and even in my first couple years of college. It’s a driving force behind me that I don’t want to be that person anymore. I want to be someone who does finish things.”

Katie now works hard at following through and finishing things. For the competition, she practiced her dish countless mornings in the College’s kitchen.

“You practice the dish until it’s embedded in your brain. You’ll never forget it,” she said.

As for what’s next, Katie is looking forward to completing her capstone assignment in May, graduating, and jumping into the cutthroat world of cooking.

Despite her competition experience she knows that when she graduates she’ll have to start in the trenches.

“We all know we’re going to end up working as a line-cook making minimum wage. You start at the bottom and work your way up. You really have to love what you do,” she said.

For most students coming out of the Culinary Arts Program, these first two years are the beginning of their learning experience in the kitchen.  But many who finish the program and apply the dedication and skills they learned have gone on to be top chefs all around the region and the country.

Katie hopes to one day work as a chef in a fine dining restaurant and perhaps, at some point, own her own restaurant. But she knows between now and then that there will be many demanding days.

“There are days that you come in and ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But at the end of the day,” she said, “you feel good, and you get up the next morning to do it again.”

For those considering a degree in Culinary Arts, Katie has this advice:

“Don’t give up. It seems bad right now; just keep trucking along.”