By Meredith Holt
When North Dakota State College of Science culinary arts student Stacey Rivers didn't get hollandaise sauce right the first time, she didn't give up. Instead, her instructor Kyle Armitage says, she went home and made about 20 more over the weekend until she perfected it.
That drive is what helped the 25-year-old Fargo woman place first in state competition and first in the national SkillsUSA competition last month in Louisville, Ky. Along with her gold medal, Rivers was offered a full scholarship to The Culinary Institute of America, other scholarships and prizes.
For years, NDSCS has been involved with SkillsUSA, which provides educational programs and competitions for people in skilled fields. This year, Rivers was among more than 6,000 who competed in 100 different areas at the championships.
"We've had students get several job offers as soon as they walk off the stage," says Armitage, who helped her prepare for the competition. "It's not only a good experience for the students who compete, but if you do well, there's a lot of potential as far as continuing education and career."
First, Rivers plans to complete NDSCS' two-year culinary arts program, driving the 45 minutes to Wahpeton each day of class. She also works at Rustica Eatery & Tavern in downtown Moorhead, where she's honing her skills under the leadership of some of the area's best chefs.
Before the busy fall semester starts, she sat down with The Forum to talk about food, cooking and competition.
Have you always enjoyed cooking?
I have. I've always been an avid Food Network watcher, and I would pick up food magazines from the grocery store.
I come from a big family, and when my mom was pregnant with my little brother and sister—the twins—she had bed rest for like, four months, and I was 13 to 14 at the time. So I started cooking the meals, and we would have a sit-down family dinner every night.
Do you have any signature dishes?
Chicken fajitas with soy and lime. I love sour cream, so I have to have sour cream with them.
Do you like competing?
I really do. It's very nerve-wracking, but I'm very systematic and organized, and I like planning. So like, the night before, they give you the required-ingredients list and then you have to type up a menu, then follow that pretty strictly. I stayed up all night and did a prep sheet of all the things I knew I needed to do.
What did you make at the national competition?
I did marinated tofu in an Asian-style salad, cream of mushroom and scallion soup and two entrees—flat-iron steak with roasted potatoes and sauteed beans and braised chicken in its own stock with gravy and couscous with split-pea relish.
How did you stay focused during the competition?
I went back to the fundamentals that I learned in school, because that's what my instructor Kyle would drive through my head. "Don't try anything crazy, just stick to the basics that you know and do them really, really well."
How did the awards ceremony go?
I placed first out of 28 people from around the country. I called my boyfriend right away and told him, then I told Kyle. There was a live feed of it on the Internet, and Kyle said he, his wife and their boys had just turned it on.
When you first started, did you have any idea you'd be this good?
No. I thought, "OK, I'm a quick learner, I can figure it out." Once I got into school, I was like, "This is great! I love this so much." I picked things up quickly.
What are your long-term goals for your career?
Eventually I'd like to open my own restaurant, or at least be the head chef of a restaurant.
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