BRYANT – Raul Ortiz of Caddo Hills High School chopped, diced and fried his way to the top Saturday, March 9, to win the second annual K-12 Culinary Connections Chef Showdown held at the Pulaski Tech Culinary Institute.
Ortiz earned a spot in the finals by winning a local competition held at Caddo Hills High School. His victory placed him in a pool from which six finalists were selected by chef and staff at K-12 Culinary Connections.
Ortiz, and the other contestants were required to use five ingredients in their dish: cod, black beans, peaches, leeks and soy sauce.
They could also choose a limited number of other ingredients to use along with common seasoning elements such as salt and pepper.
He named his dish Lazer Bean Blast. The dish included a lightly breaded and seasoned serving of cod skillet fried until crisp on the outside. The cod was served on a bed of seasoned black beans and topped with a tasty peach salsa.
Ortiz admitted after the competition that he had never cooked with fish before the event. As he began creating the dish he decided to treat it like steak.
“I wanted it to have a rough texture. That’s why I fried it.” Ortiz explained.
He dipped the cod in soy sauce and then rolled it in flour and seasoning.. Ortiz shared that he cut slits in the fish to allow the seasoning to permeate evenly throughout the fish as it cooked.
The black beans were a traditional black bean and made for a delicious base to the dish.
The peach salsa brought a surprising pop to an already amazing dish.
Severe weather warnings rang across Pulaski County Saturday morning, prompting two of the six contestants to stay at home, but it didn’t deter Ortiz from reaching for the top prize.
Ortiz stated before the event that although he was a little nervous about stepping into such a big kitchen, he had practiced preparing his dish several times.
K-12 Culinary Connections Chef Matt Murr stated that he had visited Caddo Hills to offer his expertise to Ortiz. The two worked on trimming down his prep time and plating the dish.
The state final was held at Pulaski Tech Culinary Institute in Bryant. Each contestant was provided their own station with state of the art equipment. Any nerves that may have plagued Ortiz leading up to the event quickly disappeared as he stepped into the kitchen and began his journey to a state title.
His preparation went smoothly as family and friends cheered him on from inside the kitchen. Ortiz breezed through the preparation and was the first to present his dish to the judges.
The competition was judged by Rusty Mathis, general manager of Ben E. Keith Foods, Mitch Berlin, with Pulaski Technical Institute, and Andy Arnold, with First Security Bank.
Scoring was close with all four dishing scoring within four points of one another.
Fourth place went to Rhiannon Ronk of Magnolia with 31 points, followed by third place won by Breonna Parker from Ashdown with 32 points. Both young chefs received cooking equipment provided by General Mills, a sponsor of the event.
Tension mounted in the Caddo Hills camp as Ortiz and Linda Zaragoza of Cossatot River School District awaited the announcement of the winner.
Ortiz leaped to his feet when Chef Matt Murr announced he had won with a score of 34 points. Zaragoza finished runner-up with a score of 33 points. Both received scholarships to the Pulaski Tech Culinary Institute’s summer cooking camp.
Ortiz stated that he grew interested in cooking around four years ago when he began cooking at home. He explained that his mother worked into the evening and he decided he was old enough to cook for himself. Through a desire to do for himself, a passion for cooking emerged.
Ortiz was excited about the scholarship and has indicated he is considering a career in the culinary arts.
K-12 Culinary Connection and UofA-Pulaski Technical College have partnered together to present the Chef Showdown. Their hope is the competition will provide students who have an interest in a culinary related career an opportunity to showcase their passion for cooking. The competition will also provide students with invaluable exposure to career and higher learning opportunities as they progress through the competition. K-12 Culinary Connection is partnered with several schools in Arkansas. They provide assistance with cafeteria meal preparation at Caddo Hills, Mount Ida and Oden, as well as several other schools in the area. The Chef Showdown is one of many programs they provide to give back to the schools by helping promote good eating habits and future careers in culinary arts.
The event is sponsored by K-12 Culinary Connection, UofA Pulaski Technical College Culinary Institute, Ben E. Keith Foods, General Mills and Jamar Carports and Portable Buildings.