They're three hours into the contest, cooking hard, when team captain Marissa Gerlach peers into the deep fryer and glimpses potential doom. Not this, she thinks. Not now.

She's tried to anticipate every calamity. She's practiced sick, juggled work, labored for hours with her fellow aspiring chefs in their Costa Mesa school's cramped kitchen.

In the last year, Gerlach has led the five-student "hot food" team at Orange Coast College to victory over rivals across California and the western United States, repeatedly shaming more expensive, better- equipped schools.

Now, working on little sleep and an empty stomach -- she skipped breakfast to search for a missing pan -- the 22-year-old Laguna Niguel student is in the thick of the Super Bowl of college cooking, the American Culinary Federation's national championships.

She's running behind, trying not to panic, her teammates whirling around her in a cacophony of knives, whisks and blenders. It took her longer than expected to cut the pork, which set her behind in filleting the fish -- which means the hundred other things she must do got pushed back too.

She graduates this year, so it's the last hour of the last contest in her two-year career as a student cook, and no one aches worse for the first-place trophy. She imagines holding it on the plane ride home.

She's responsible for her team's entree, a smoked pork tenderloin with sun-dried tomato sausage, apricot compote, glazed carrots and haricots verts, French string beans.

The team is aiming for haute cuisine while evoking memories of childhood summers. "I want white trash," their coach told them. "I want what I grew up with."

Which is why, accompanying her elegant entree, Gerlach will deposit the humblest mainstay of American cooking: a scoop of macaroni swimming in Velveeta cheese and cream, which she will deep-fry in a crust of panko, a Japanese bread crumb.

This is the team's masterstroke, consistently praised by the test audiences the team served to raise donations to pay its way to Orlando. A witty hybrid of low and high culinary culture, it's a crispy little cannonball designed to pierce the judges' jaded hearts and make them wistful for their vanished childhoods.

With just minutes to spare before plate-up, Gerlach hauls the scoops, breaded and chilled, to the deep fryer.

She looks inside, only to see that the oil isn't hot.

The oil isn't hot because the fryer isn't on.

The fryer isn't on because it isn't plugged in.

It was plugged in, at the start. Somehow the cord popped loose.

Which leaves Gerlach facing an excruciating choice: Find another way to cook the breaded scoops and send the entrees out late . . . or send them out on time, denuded of their secret weapon.

She learned to cook as a teenager, baking Christmas cookies with her mother. Soon, she and her mom, who is of Armenian descent, were in the kitchen making fabulous meals of lamb kebabs and cucumber-and-yogurt salad.

Gerlach learned to make rice pilaf with vermicelli browned in butter, which generated a singular, toasty smell she now finds inseparable from memories of home. Now, she teaches her mother, who is a little surprised by her daughter's perfectionism.

"She just went way over me," Sharon Gerlach says. "School was never her favorite thing, and she found something she absolutely loves."