By Dedra Cordle
With nerves creeping in as a growing buzz of excitement rippled through the air, Saul Castillo Zepeda and Jefferson Martinez Guerra began the calming process of visualization.
They began by tuning out, or at least trying their best to tune out, the steely faced judges and professional chefs standing silently nearby. Then they started to focus less on the competitors nearby. Finally, they took inventory of their stock and pictured the potential of their perfectly planned burger.
There was the pineapple on the table, ready to be chopped and crafted into a salsa. There were the onions and jalapenos, ready to be caramelized and sautéed; the sweet Hawaiian BBQ sauce and spicy mayo set to go. The pepper jack cheese was chilling nearby, not at all prepared for its next step as an oozing interior burst. Then, there were the Brioche buns at the end of their station, ready to be toasted just right.
The student team from the South-Western Career Academy’s culinary program kept these pictures in their head. Then, when those steely judges announced that it was time to get to work for the Burger Battle, the visualization floated away and the months-long preparation sessions took over.
Though this event, the ProStart Capital City Burger Battle, was billed as a fun competition between culinary art students throughout the state, there was more to it for Castillo Zepeda and Martinez Guerra. While they later admitted to having quite a bit of fun, taking first place was the priority.
“We wanted to bring pride to our school, represent our school, our families, our skills,” said Martinez Guerra, 18.
“And our cultures,” added Castillo Zepeda, 17.
Their quest began earlier this year when Martinez Guerra participated in the first ProStart Burger Battle, which is sponsored by the Ohio Beef Council. Out of 25 teams, he placed fifth and was greatly disappointed by the results.
“I set out to win,” he said.
As the alternate, Castillo Zepeda did not participate but was determined to be in the next one.
It was nearly three months later when Chef Christopher Wright, their culinary instructor at the South-Western Career Academy, told his students about the Burger Battle and solicited volunteers. Both teens signed up.
“They were here for hours after school when we were still in session and they were here every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. throughout the summer preparing and perfecting their burger,” said Wright, who is in his second year at the academy.
He said their dedication was unsurprising.
“They really wanted to get at this.”
When they first started creating their original burger using in-season foods, there was, of course, trial and error, specifically with the buns.
“We tried a Hawaiian bun but it didn’t work out,” said Martinez Guerra.
Eventually, they settled on a Brioche, which later turned out to be a great idea.
“The judge told them that theirs was the best bun out of all of the competitors,” said Wright.
After tinkering with flavor combinations, they discovered the near perfect blend of spicy and sweet with the Big Kahuna burger. It even won the approval of Eder Zepeda, Saul’s 12-year-old cousin, a budding food critic who told them it was too good not to use.
The following weeks were spent perfecting the recipe and timing out the preparation.
“They judge on all of that,” said Wright. “From washing your hands, mise-en-place and clean-up. They judge everything.”
On July 29, the team went to the Ohio State Fair to compete against 18 other high school teams. They visualized, they were prepared, and they didn’t let those intimidating judges get to them.
“There were like 20 of them and they were all silent,” said Castillo Zepeda with a laugh.
The finished product was, according to Wright, a near perfect replica of what they had spent months working on, including the oozy pepper jack cheese center with a perfectly toasted bun featuring a “fantastic” sautéed jalapeno on top.
Sadly though, said Martinez Guerra, their burger placed third.
“I’m proud of what we did but it would have been nicer to be first.”
Wright said they should definitely take heart – after all, only one point separated first, second and third – but they should definitely use this as motivation when they compete again next year.
“This is a great example of what being a chef is all about,” he said. “Sometimes things don’t go your way, sometimes you fail, but you use that to better yourself and become a better professional.”