Her future was on the line, and Rogers, 17, was determined to keep her nerves at bay for the two hours she had to compete for a culinary school scholarship. She had practiced this food, and she'd been cooking since she "could push a stool up to the stove."
Rogers was among 34 students, some with the prom looming that night, who had carried their knives and cutting boards and other equipment to the kitchens at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Santa Monica early on the last Friday in May to prepare what they fervently hoped would be the best chicken with mushroom sauce and crêpes with vanilla pastry cream of their young lives.
"I'm really nervous," said Jose Yepez, a senior at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley who dreams of going to Johnson & Wales University. "What if this one time? . . . I don't want to think about it."
By lunchtime, each had made two plates of the chicken and two of the crêpes: one set for the judges to taste, the other for presentation. Just a little bit of food, but those plates would help decide whether they would get the chance to go away to college.
The 34 students would, three days later, collect more than $590,000 in scholarships through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, a nonprofit organization that works with students in several U.S. cities.
Work the room
But first, the final competition. C-CAP's founder, teacher and author Richard Grausman, advised students to taste their food as they worked and to move fast, an important asset in professional kitchens. "Make it a little uncomfortable for yourselves," Grausman said.
Divided into two kitchens, mostly wedged four to a station, all dressed in white chef's jackets and paper hats, the students started to distinguish themselves from the first minutes.
Yepez's classmate, Oscar Melendez, 18, lined up his knife and measuring spoons on a green towel adjacent to a green cutting board. Melendez has taken culinary arts classes at Mission College in Sylmar, and in May placed third in a national teen cooking competition. To the end, he was composed, efficient and precise.
Nearby, Rogers, from Manual Arts, began with the hardest task for most of the students, "turning" those potatoes, a demanding technique intended to produce pieces uniform in size and shape. These would be sauteed and placed with the chicken. She bit her lip, cradled a potato and began to cut.
"The kids hate it," said William O'Neill, a private chef and one of the judges. "Everybody worries about the potatoes."
Others began with the pastry cream that would go into the crêpes. Kayla Broom, a 17-year-old senior at Dorsey High School, took the tarragon for the chicken from its bag. They had all practiced before school and after, at home and in class. Soon perspiration spread along the paper bands of some of the boys' toques.
"Everybody does know what they're doing," said Alejandro Henriquez, a volunteer at the final competition.
A year ago, Henriquez was among the competing students; he won an $80,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He is working at the Hotel Bel-Air while waiting to begin school later this year.
The finalists were selected in a preliminary competition last month, making omelets and salad for the judges -- some of whom had visited the students' classes and helped train them through C-CAP.
On Friday, moms and dads, siblings and teachers watched through windows, took pictures, tried to send good vibrations. Inside, the students worked in a silence broken only when a bowl clattered to the floor or a student maneuvered through the crowded room with a pan warning, "Hot, hot, hot."
As the students cooked, the 10 judges strolled among them, peering into pans of pastry cream or eyeing how tomato was diced. One judge, Evan Kleiman, owner of Angeli Caffe, was impressed by their composure: "To be asked to be confident in this situation at an age when they're not always confident in their own skin. . . ."
Students were scored from 1 to 10 in categories including presentation, sanitation, knife skills and taste.