Culinary students make history

By Ryan Cornell

MOUNT JACKSON — When five students from Triplett Tech’s culinary arts program head to the state competition next month, it will make school history.

Never before has there been more than one student in the state competition in any given year, according to culinary arts instructor Paje Cross.

“This is a very competitive group of kids,” said Cross, who is in her second year of teaching at the school.

The students competing are: Liza Bull and Marissa Sager in restaurant service, Jordan Palmer and Zachary Khambata in culinary arts and Cody Fitchett in baking.

Hosted by Skills USA Virginia, the state competition will be held in Roanoke on April 4 and 5. The competition features between 15 and 20 students in each of the 128 categories, Cross said. She said the top three winners get scholarships for $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000 toward culinary school.

Last year, Triplett Tech senior Jacoby Dinges placed third in the state competition for baking and received a $5,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, where he currently studies.

The first place winner in each category at the competition will go to the national competition held in Kansas City.

Students competing in restaurant service will serve dishes and are expected to know serving and plating techniques as well as four different napkin folds.

Cross said that when the culinary arts and baking students arrive, they’re handed a packet describing the recipes they have to prepare in a four-hour window.

She said culinary arts students might have to break down a whole chicken and create rice or risotto, chicken stock and a salad. Baking students might be tasked with creating a cake or a tart crust and pastry creme from scratch, she said, as well as decorating a two-layer birthday cake.

“[They’re] dealing with time management, people management,” she said. “There’s probably up to 20 people in the room at a time.”

And although the students might have grown comfortable to the expansive kitchen at Triplett Tech, they’re going to be working in much smaller spaces at the competition.

Cross said they’ve practiced taping off 2-foot sections of the tables in preparation of the competition.

She said she’s tried to prepare them for these types of challenges.

“I’ve been known to do things like you might see on TV,” she said. “Like ‘what’s in the basket’ or ‘secret ingredient’ or ‘you have four items and what are you going to do with them?'”

The regional competition was held at Triplett Tech in February and had the students compete against culinary students from Rappahannock High School.

Fitchett said he cooked seven recipes at regionals, and ended up winning first place in the baking category.

“I’m nervous but not super nervous,” he said. “I think the regional competition prepared us for the state competition.”

Culinary classes at Triplett Tech have 16 juniors and 16 seniors this year. Cross said about a quarter of her students usually go into culinary school.

Fitchett, who has been accepted into Johnson & Wales, is waiting to hear back from the Culinary Institute of America. Khambata plans to attend Johnson & Wales. Palmer is also interested in attending a culinary school.

The culinary arts department is working on a garden outside the school that will be able to produce herbs and vegetables. Work is expected to start on the six raised beds in the spring.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or

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