Chef in training


POSTED: Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Christian Dortch has mapped out a lifetime plan that includes opening his own restaurant—or two. Initially, there will be time spent as a sous-chef, followed by a position as an executive chef. To kick-start it all, there will be schooling at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California—Orange County.

These are big plans by any standard, but they're especially impressive because Dortch is still a senior at Leilehua High School. Yet it all seems doable coming from this young man with unshakable determination.

“;I'm looking at many more years of training,”; he said. “;After I have eight to 10 years under my belt, I'll open up my own restaurant.”;

He plots out this steppingstone approach by setting realistic goals. “;My grandpa taught me to make goals you could accomplish,”; he said. “;He cooks for a mission in Kodiak, Alaska, so cooking runs in the family.”;

Dortch credits countless childhood memories of his uncle's grill skills for his deep interest in a career in culinary arts. His uncle managed the barbecue pit at most family gatherings.

“;He knew the grill front and back, from the coals up,”; Dortch explains. “;Everything was always perfect. He would take any type of protein, put it on the grill, add his personal touch to it, and it would be the most amazing thing you have ever put in your mouth.”;

Watching Uncle has paid off. Dortch recently received top honors in the Southern California Cooking Competition and will compete in the nationals, to be held this weekend in North Carolina.

“;After third and second place were called, I was disappointed that I hadn't even made the top three. But when my name was called, I felt all my hard work, long nights, plane tickets, missing school and baseball had finally paid off,”; Dortch said.

“;To win nationals would be unreal. But, what an experience to even get the opportunity to go there. I now just lay everything in God's hands.”;

Dortch will compete against 33 other young chefs from across the United States for the Best Teen Chef title. The winner receives a full scholarship to The International Culinary School and the chance to be an “;Intern for a Day”; at the Food Network kitchens in New York.

The Art Institute created the Best Teen Competition in 2000 to encourage and recognize young culinary talent.

“;This competition brings together the best of the best from different high schools across the U.S. That alone would put a lot of pressure on anyone,”; said Chef Daniel Mattos, culinary arts academic director at the International Culinary School. “;The majority of these contestants are most comfortable cooking for their families, and it will be their first time they have ever worked with or even tasted endive, oysters, poached eggs and catfish.”;

AT TIMES it's highly stressful to compete at this level, said Dortch. “;Getting myself prepared and having the judges staring over my shoulder was stressful, but in the end it was a blast.”;

But the judges didn't seem to notice the young man's anxiety.

“;The way Christian handled himself in the kitchen the day of the Orange County competition quickly set him apart from the rest of the contestants,”; Mattos said. “;Since then we've seen the level of commitment and dedication that Christian has for this competition and his culinary education. Christian has been flying back and forth between Hawaii and Orange County to work with culinary instructor Chef Michael Backouris, an expert in American Regional cuisine. I am confident that he will be successful in the upcoming national competition.”;

Locally, Dortch been working with Chef Dale Thomas of Kapiolani Community College and the instructors at Leilehua's culinary program.

Dortch gets plenty of practice outside of class, as well. When he arrives home from school, his mother often asks, “;What's for dinner?”; Needless to say, he's the primary cook for the family.

“;I'm thankful for them and appreciate the family critique,”; he said, noting that his 16-year-old sister, Macy, is his biggest critic.

Macy says her favorite dishes comprise chicken and sauces that her brother whips up from whatever ingredients happen to be in the pantry. “;I always tell him if things are too bland or if he needs to spice things up,”; she said. The family, especially Mom, who is relieved of cooking duties, enjoys the gourmet-style meals.

Dortch doesn't see cooking as work, though. “;Everyone has to eat. And, every single second I'm cooking, I love it.”;