Trading blue jeans for chef's whites

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's easy to recognize prodigies. Their talent is raw, their focus singular, and their preparation immaculate.

High school student, wannabe chef, and procrastinator extraordinaire Nicholas Halley isn't a prodigy. He just makes good desserts.

How good?

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Two of Nick's desserts, Strawberry Angel Food Cake with Yogurt Glaze, and a Pineapple-Banana Sorbet, won first prize in the National High School Recipe Contest sponsored by Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, R.I.

These visually striking, surprisingly nutritious, and simply scrumptious desserts would seem the consummate achievement of years of kitchen labor. But Nick's recipe was a tablespoon of inspiration and three teaspoons procrastination.

"It was a last-minute thing," Halley explains. "I wanted a healthy dessert that tasted good. I literally threw it together, then came up with the recipe."

The spontaneous approach also worked wonders for another contest entrant, Robert Lena.

Faced with the impending deadline, Robert relied on one-hour photo processing and last-minute heroics. The scramble paid off. His Broiled Mahi-Mahi with Sweet and Spicy Fruit Relish, served with Couscous Salad and Steamed Green Beans, also took top honors.

Nick had already been accepted at Johnson & Wales when he heard about the contest during the school's orientation. Though the deadline was only a few days away, the opportunity was too good to pass up. "I wanted some scholarship money, and I figured the contest would look good on my rsum."

If his contest motivation was purely pragmatic, Nick's artistic vision for the award-winning sorbet and angel food cake was more passionate. "I wanted it to come from my heart instead of my brain."

For any high-schooler with dreams of becoming an executive chef, first prize in the National Recipe Contest would be an auspicious beginning. Nick's winning entries seem especially promising, since he has only two months of culinary experience. In fact, the avid snowboarder became interested in cooking only six months ago.

"I really wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon; but then everybody else at school wanted to be a doctor, so I started looking at other professions. I wanted to try culinary arts."

Armed with enthusiasm and a culinary dictionary, Nick soon landed a plum job as a pantry chef at the five-star Metropolitan Club restaurant, near his Lakewood, Colo., home.

Under the tutelage of executive chef Darren Herbst, Nick quickly earned his stripes - and kitchen battle scars.

"I lit my whole hand on fire doing a flamb," he recalls.

Chef Herbst has encouraged Nick's kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm, while ensuring he doesn't bite off more than he can chew.

"I have carte blanche in the kitchen. I get to design the dessert plate now," he says excitedly.

Mr. Herbst's appraisal is more seasoned. "Nick came in totally green, but he's very intelligent, a quick learner - and he's got a real passion for food." Herbst feels Nick still has much to learn, however. "He might be jumping ahead on some things."

Though immersed in a gourmet atmosphere, Nick's tastes remain unpretentious. His favorite meal is a giant burrito from Chipotles, a nuevo Mexican chain. "They're awesome," he says.

Still, his cooking aspirations, and influences, are haute cuisine - with a decidedly personal vision.

"I have an eclectic taste. I don't want my food to look classical, so I aim for a nuevo look."

Indeed, avoiding the symmetrical, plain look of past Johnson and Wales winners was Halley's objective. "I wanted my dish to stick out. That was my driving force: to look different and look good."

Having mastered sorbets, Nick is eager to learn new crafts such as ice-carving and cake decorating. He is particularly drawn to seafood. First on his list: lobster bisque. Nick is also working on new recipes for cognac steak, shrimp steak, and Cherries Jubilee. While he prepares existing recipes, his first inclination is to create his own, with very simple guidelines:

"If it doesn't look good on the plate, I don't want to make it," he says. "After all, if you wouldn't eat it yourself, then why serve it?"

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is one of Nick's role models. But the teenager isn't using Puck's acclaimed chain of restaurants as a measuring stick.

"I just want to be an awesome chef."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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