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Sunday, March 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:12 A.M.
Self-taught teen sizzles in cooking contest
By Tan Vinh
He was a self-taught cook going against teens with culinary training. But halfway through the competition, Dominic Ledesma had other worries.
His chicken had been sizzling on the pan too long and his rice pilaf was undercooked.
"I couldn't start over. I just had to work with what I had," said the home-schooler from Olympia.
Thanks to poise and some quick thinking, Ledesma recovered to take the fifth annual culinary-arts competition held at the Art Institute of Seattle yesterday, winning by a quarter of a point.
Ledesma, 18, qualified to compete for the title of "America's Best Teen Chef" in Orange County, Calif., in May and for a share of $200,000 in scholarships. He also won a $2,000 scholarship to the institute and received praise from judges who didn't know Ledesma learned from watching his parents and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network.
"Talk about poise," said Steven Kilts, academic director of culinary arts at the institute and a judge.
The contestants who made the cut to compete received the recipes two weeks in advance, giving them time to practice with their high-school culinary instructors.
But unlike the other competitors, Ledesma said yesterday was the first time he had cooked in a commercial kitchen and it showed at the start.
Ledesma left the heat on too high for the chicken and the oven heat too low for the rice pilaf. He made eye contact with his mother to indicate things were not going well.
To complement the dry chicken, he used a heavy sauce of sautéed onions, garlic, mushrooms and white wine and moved the rice back to the stove top to finish cooking before time expired.
"Your sauce saved you," judge Robert Suelzle told Ledesma afterward. Judges were also in awe of the presentation of his shrimp cocktail, which included a cucumber shaved into the shape of a glass with slivers of lemon zest on the rim.
Home-schooled since second grade, Ledesma said he surprised his mother when he was 8 by making her scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Over the years, he watched his father make sausages and his mother bake gingerbread houses.
"I just learned by experimenting and doing it myself," said the high-school senior who hopes to attend the institute later this year.
His parents said they home-schooled their four children to tailor an academic program to their strengths and weaknesses.
From an early age, it was clear where their second-oldest son's talent lay, even though neither parent had formal culinary training, said his mother, Patti Ledesma.
"No matter what he does in the kitchen, Dominic seems to pick it up easily," she said.
She admitted she thought her son was "way underqualified" to compete. "But I figured it would be good experience for him anyway."
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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