tampabay.com

17-year-old chef sautes toward national title

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published March 20, 2007


CRYSTAL RIVER - If this story came with a bite of Joshua Dawson's sauteed chicken in basil cream sauce, it would be easier to understand why the 17-year-old was recently named the region's best young chef.

The Art Institute of Tampa Saturday awarded Dawson, a senior at Crystal River High School, the local title and a chance to win a $40,000 scholarship at a national competition that has all the makings of the television show Iron Chef.

Dawson will fly to Dallas on May 5 and face off against 22 other high school seniors from across the nation to see who can prepare the best meal under a tight deadline. The winner will take home the scholarship and national title.

"I'm excited," Dawson said. "I think I can win."

Dawson got a taste of the pressure when he put his culinary skills to the test this weekend against several other high school seniors from west-central Florida and one student from Trinidad and Tobago.

The group had 90 minutes to prepare a meal with chicken, broccoli and rice while judges looked over their shoulders. Dawson's girlfriend and the families of the other contestants watched from another room, separated by a plexiglass window.

Dawson, who started as a dishwasher and is now a cook at the Plantation Inn and Golf Resort in Crystal River, said he was nervous. But he tried to remember the advice of Michael Kulow, the former food and beverage director at the resort: Keep calm and focus.

"I really wasn't worried about anyone else but myself," he said.

When time was up, the judges sampled the dishes and picked Dawson's as the winner.

"I was kind of shocked because it seemed that the judges criticized mine the most," he said. "I didn't think I had won."

The judges, he said, had marked him down because he used too much rice, the broccoli didn't have enough seasoning and his basil cream sauce was too thick.

Kulow, his mentor, heard about Dawson's win from a reporter.

"I've turned out a few chefs and some I haven't," he said. "I hope Josh carries through with it."

His mother, Rose Humenik, said she was skeptical when she first learned that Dawson wanted to become a cook.

"I could never see my son raised here in Citrus County wanting to go to a place like New York City," said Humenik, who works as a groundskeeper at the Plantation Inn along with her husband, John Shuff. The couple helped Joshua get a job as a dishwasher so he could have some spending money and learn about responsibility.

But after tiring of "butting heads" with her son, Humenik said, she began to realize he had a real talent for cooking. He quickly learned how to make sauteed grouper with mango salsa, grilled salmon and his favorite, shrimp and scallops scampi with a crowned lemon.

"He just cooked us omelets the other night," she said. "He was showing us how to flip them."

Asked who is a better cook, Humenik said: "He is. Hands down."

"It seems like men love to cook," she added. "Maybe it's because they don't look at it as a job like us women do."

Dawson said he plans to memorize and practice making every dish he finds on a menu before the national competition. But he's not stressing too much about it.

"I'm just going to go and meet some new people and have some fun," he said.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.