This past February, Johnson County Community College student Kelly Conwell was ecstatic to go to Illinois and be able to compete against her Midwestern peers for the American Culinary Federation's central region student chef of the year. At the time, she told Fat City she was "completely happy just to even get to regionals."
She went on to win, with a complex menu that earned her a trip to the ACF's national competition in Orlando, Florida. On Tuesday, she beat out the other three finalists from around the country to win National Student Chef of the Year.
Kelly Conwell is the best student chef in the country.
"I just got back yesterday and it still hasn't sunk in," Conwell said. "It was lot of practice. For the last month and a half waking up at 5 a.m. and working seven to eight hours on it ... making each dish 17 times or more."
Conwell attributes her success to several factors.
She was the only competitor to have a cold dish -- an appetizer of smoked trout on
a bed of carrots and coleslaw along with a clam chowder salad with
sea foam. "It was unique and different. My instructor and I both knew
the judges would either love it or hate, that it could win me the
competition or knock me out." In Orlando's July heat,
the judges did indeed love it.
Besides practicing her
dishes over and over, she also brought in chefs to
critique her work -- including the Westin Crown Center's head chef Martin
Julia(n) Celina Tio. Conwell gives a lot of praise to them and to her JCCC
instructors for helping to tweak the styles and platings because, she says, "By
that time I was numb to the dishes. I had seen them too many times that
I couldn't think about them anymore."
Having recently graduated, Conwell is set to move to Germany at the end of the month. She doesn't know how her new-found acclaim will affect her
travel plans. The World Association of Cooks Society holds its international competition in Santiago, Chile, this winter and
she hopes to represent the United States. "One of my judges from
Orlando is actually going to be in Germany at the same time I'm over
there and said he can help me find a kitchen to practice in."
So while she's not entirely sure where she'll be competing next,
Conwell just knows she wants to compete. "Students have been calling me
and asking me about the competition and if I like it. I tell them it
was the best decision I ever made."
Big congratulations to her and to JCCC for turning out such a fine student.