The Windham Regional Career Center’s culinary arts team took first place at the Golden Ladle competition. Team members included, from left, Rhiannon Rivard, “T” Contakos, Blaize Weiss, Quin Forchion, and Jazmin Knowlton.
The Windham Regional Career Center’s culinary arts team took first place at the Golden Ladle competition. Team members included, from left, Rhiannon Rivard, “T” Contakos, Blaize Weiss, Quin Forchion, and Jazmin Knowlton.

Culinary students bring home the gold ... ladle

Windham Regional Career Center team members take first place in regional Golden Ladle competition — on their first try

In their first-ever culinary competition, the five team members from the culinary arts program of the Windham Regional Career Center (WRCC) have won the Golden Ladle.

"I was very impressed with all our performances," says team member Quin Forchion, 17, of Brattleboro. "I did expect us to do very well, but I didn't think we'd come out with such a dominating win. On the day, everything just clicked into place and went perfectly."

"It was definitely unexpected," says Jazmin "Orion" Knowlton, 16, also of Brattleboro. "As manager of the team, it was kind of stressful. It took us all like a minute to realize we won."

"To be absolutely and 100% honest, it was a surprise, as the students have indicated," says Chef David Spanierman, their culinary arts instructor, who called his students "wonderful."

"This was our first competition as a group - we hadn't done this or been exposed to that environment or the skill level of other teams," Spanierman says. "We went in there blind and cold, and the kids did fabulous jobs. [...] The students excelled and produced a beautiful meal. We were elated."

A 'unique platform'

The WRCC is a career and technical school that offers a diverse selection of career preparation programs for all students attending school in the Windham Southeast Regional School District at the Brattleboro campus.

The culinary arts program has been shepherding would-be chefs for 30 years. The culinary class is held for two hours each day, five days a week.

All team members are in their second year of the WRCC's two-year culinary program and included seniors T. "Thalia" Contakos, Forchion, Rhiannon Rivard, and Blaize Weiss, as well as Knowlton, a junior.

The annual Golden Ladle Competition took place Dec. 1 at River Valley Technical Center in Springfield. The event, hosted by River Valley Culinary Arts Instructor David Groenewold, of Bellows Falls, brought together seven teams from across the state.

The competition is a cornerstone event for Vermont Career and Technical Education culinary programs and serves as an introduction to ProStart, Skills USA, and other national culinary educational programs and associated competitions.

"It offers students a unique platform to qualify at a regional level for the nationals," Spanierman says.

ProStart is the educational organization run by the National Restaurant Association (or, as he calls it, "the other NRA"). The association also developed the ServSafe regulations with regard to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety regulations and other professional food service standards and regulations.

Now the students are starting to prepare for a March invitational competition at The Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, New York, although they haven't yet received their official invitation.

Culinary paraeducator Elizabeth "Lizi" Rosenberg, who works with the aspiring young chefs daily, was also surprised at the win, "not because they couldn't do it, but because they're rookies, so I was absolutely tickled and delighted. They were amazing."

Rosenberg says the March event has "more rules" and is "more intense, and more a national competition than regional, so the stakes will be a little bit higher."

From ingredients to the plate

The Golden Ladle Competition saw student teams not only prepare an appetizer, entrée, salad, and dessert within an hour's time but also demonstrate knife skills by breaking down a chicken to its parts in the Statler manner, terminology derived from the turn-of-the-century Statler Hotel in Boston and the hotel's chef's particular manner of breaking down the bird.

The students knew the menu in advance and committed all recipes to memory. They also designed the plating of each dish on their own.

"As chef, I couldn't open my mouth and tell them anything," says Spanierman, who is in his fifth year directing the program. "I just had to stand there with my hands behind my back, nodding my head."

He calls the team "a really good bunch."

"I'm very happy with them and impressed with their togetherness in pulling this off," Spanierman says.

The students' winning meal started with a spring mix and pomegranate salad with slices of Honeycrisp apple and red pear and a classic lemon vinaigrette, prepared by Weiss.

The main course featured pan-seared medallions of pork, prepared by Contakos and Forchion, that were elegantly placed over green beans with a mustard pan sauce, smashed potatoes, and wasabi dots.

Rivard executed the chicken breakdown and prepared a dessert of medjool dates stuffed with raspberries and pecans in dark chocolate, served on a bed of whipped cream, dark chocolate, and crushed pecans.

Winners look toward careers

Many of the students have after-school jobs in the food service sector and want to pursue culinary arts as a career.

Knowlton works in the retail field now but says she "definitely" wants to pursue a culinary career.

Weiss, 18, of Readsboro, is "passionate" about the culinary arts.

"I do think I want to pursue it after high school," he says.

Of the contest, he says, "we prepared as well as we could, and I think we did well, but there's always room for improvement."

Forchion, 17, of Brattleboro, has worked summer catering jobs and in family restaurants.

"I've applied to multiple culinary schools, and I'd like to pursue it after high school as a career path," he says.

Contakos, 17, of Whitingham, has worked at the Jacksonville General Store deli and at North Star Pizza and Bowling in Wilmington.

"I plan on going to college for acting, but I plan on using culinary to make money," they say.

Contakos added that the win was surprising, but that "we put a lot of work in and didn't have a lot of time to get [the meal] out, but I was very pleased. That was probably the best version of the dish we had made."

Rivard, 16, of Brattleboro, works full-time on the line at High Thai in Brattleboro.

She is open to more culinary education, but for now plans to work and wants to "do interesting things like go on cruise ships and work at the coolest culinary restaurants I can."

For her, the win was "shocking."

"None of us really listened [to the announcement of the winner] because we assumed we didn't win," she says.

"It made me more confident in my abilities and also, watching the video, how calm I was," Rivard adds. "I felt like I was freaking out, but I wasn't."

She says that having to separate from her team to cut chicken in under 10 minutes was anxiety-making, as was returning to help finish the full meal, but she says her mates were "very understanding and helped me organize my stuff and get on top of my task."

Apparently, the winning team prepared a meal that tasted as good as it looked.

"I would definitely eat it," says Knowlton.

See a slice of the WRCC's culinary action during the Golden Ladle competition on video at

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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