See a video and photos from Middletown High School's Culinary Arts Showcase featuring Robbie Jester, a winner on Food Network's 'Beat Bobby Flay'

A chef who was victorious on the Food Network's “Beat Bobby Flay” was the keynote speaker at the Middletown High School Culinary Arts Showcase Jan. 16.

Robbie Jester, executive chef of the Stone Balloon Ale House, told students to work hard, persevere and be prepared for opportunities that will elevate their careers, like the opportunity he had while trying out for the Bravo TV show “Top Chef.”

While he wasn’t asked to be on that show, during the casting call he was invited to audition for “Guy’s Grocery Games” on the Food Network.

“I had never applied. I had never even watched an episode, but because I had the right mindset when I went to the casting call for ‘Top Chef,’ they called me for ‘Guy’s Grocery Games.’ I jumped into it. I took a chance,” Jester said. “You have to have the resilience and the patience. In this business it takes hard work.”

After appearing on the show but not winning, he was asked to return for a “redemption” episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games.”

That led to an invitation to audition for “Beat Bobby Flay,” also on the Food Network. In the first round of the show, two chefs battle, and then the winning chef advances to face celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

With his veal Milanese dish, Jester defeated fellow contestant James Laird, the chef at Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, New Jersey, for the right to challenge Flay.

Coincidentally, one of the judges for the first round was the season six winner of “Top Chef,” Michael Voltaggio. The other judge was Lance Bass, from the boy band *NSYNC. They stepped aside as a panel of three experts from the restaurant industry judged the final dishes.

Against Flay, Jester’s winning dish was shrimp scampi, one of the first dishes that his father taught him to cook.

Jester got to watch his triumphant episode when it aired in July 2016 with his family, friends and staff at the Stone Balloon Ale House.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with high honors, Jester told the Middletown High School culinary arts students they have to constantly look for ways to improve.

“Figure out what it is in life that fuels you. Dig into that,” said Jester. “Be prepared for the opportunity to succeed in this business. Go find a mentor, learn skills, add value to yourself.”

He said sometimes those opportunities will be volunteering to work for a restaurant at a charity event, or staying late to work on skills.

“If you want an investment from your employer, your mentor, your boss, you have to invest in them. You have to give them the hard work,” Jester said. “The last thing I want to hear is, ‘Well, you’re not paying me for that so I’m not going to do it.’”

Being willing to improve your skills or help with charity events can lead to the offer of a better job or position, or could introduce you to the person who gives you a better opportunity, he said.

Culinary showcase tastings

Before Jester’s speech, the students showed off their cooking skills by providing samples of dishes to guests at the culinary arts showcase. Funds raised at the event will help students pay for the “ServSafe” training they are required to take and will provide scholarships for students to pursue careers in the culinary arts.

A similar showcase was held at Appoquinimink High School Jan. 9.

The fundraisers were organized by the Appoquinimink School District Culinary Advisory Board, a non-profit group which includes professionals from High 5 Hospitality (Buffalo Wild Wings), Metro Pub & Grill, Saladworks, Buckley’s Tavern, Back Creek Golf Club, Grain, Delaware Business Systems and the Delaware Restaurant Association Education Foundation.

Advisory board co-president Adam Cofield, general manager of Metro Pub & Grill, said the showcases provide a great opportunity for the students.

Cofield said, “It’s awesome that family members and community members get to taste the quality dishes the students are producing and see the skills they have learned,” while at the same time helping to raise funds that will help them in their education.

Middletown High School Culinary Arts Director Krystal Peters said students had the opportunity to talk to chefs and managers of restaurants, many from the advisory board.

“The students were surprised that so many people were impressed by what they could do and that the movers and shakers – those that hire and fire – were willing to take time to discuss things with them like resume writing, having a firm handshake, dressing to impress, going out of one’s comfort zone and simply taking a chance to speak to someone,” said Peters.

The advisory board started with requests by district teachers and administrators as a way of getting business leaders more involved with students’ education, “especially since our students will be going out to work in some of their facilities,” Peters said.

She said the guidance and interest of the business leaders are “motivating our students to be successful.”

“The highlight for me as an educator was seeing my students reach the height of their success,” she said. “This event entailed all the pieces of the ProStart curriculum that we have been learning all year. It was a way for us to pull it all together in the real world. A few kids got job offers out of the event.”

The students loved getting an opportunity to showcase what they have been doing all year, especially for their family and the school staff, she said.

“Often Culinary Arts is looked at as a last resort. My students were able to show that there is much more involved in this field than just making cookies,” Peters said. “The kids were able to network with some industry heavy hitters. Many had never met a celebrity chef so it was life changing for them to meet and have engaging conversation – some one-on-one – with Robbie Jester.”

Student Taliyah Stinnette said the showcase was excellent career training.

“We can get the feeling of what we need to do if we work in a restaurant,” Stinnette said. “It helps us work as a team and learn about serving guests.”

Student Tyler McClarin said the event was fun as well as educational.

“I like to cook and talk with other students, and this was a good way to learn teamwork and bonding skills,” McClarin said. “What we learn we can carry it on to what you do in life and become a better, more well-rounded person.”

Peters said the Appoquinimink School District Culinary Arts Pathway trains students to become industry professionals.

“They have to learn the nuts and bolts. The have to understand success and failure. This was a safe space in which they could do so,” she said.

And the winners are…

Guests at the Culinary Arts Showcase had the chance to vote for their favorite dishes.

The winners in the “savory” category were the members of team “Eight 8” with their beef Wellington. Team members included Terran Jones, JayQuan Moses, Brahmir Vick and Cassandra Williams.

In the “sweet” category, the winners were Nicole Bryan, Anirah Mapp and Taliyah Stinnette from the “Measuring Cups” team for their caramel cheesecake.

The winners received a knife roll and restaurant gift cards.

“I also promised to make a dish of their choosing for the winning teams,” said Peters. “I think they were more excited about getting their teacher to cook for them upon request.”

Guests also had the chance to bid on silent auction items including restaurant gift cards, also to raise money for scholarships and the “ServSafe” training for students.

Both Middletown and Appoquinimink high schools are each tentatively planning to host another culinary showcase in late May, Peters said.

“The students love the idea since depending on their schedule, we will only be able to see some of them half of the year. After hearing their friends rave about the event, many that are registered for the upcoming semester have already starting getting information on what the event entails,” Peters said.