Ready, set, cook for college!

Judges and students with their salads during C-CAP Competition in room with windows shining light from the right

Cooking up a storm: High school students compete for scholarships at HRM competition

NAU’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management recently hosted a cooking competition for Arizona high school students in conjunction with Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a workforce development nonprofit that provides underserved teens a pathway to success. The competition featured a nail-biting countdown and was an interactive opportunity for these aspiring culinary professionals to showcase their skills and potentially win scholarships to a university with a culinary program. HRM’s demonstration kitchen was filled with eager young chefs—their aprons tied tight and their eyes bright as they assessed their stations and got to work. Chef Mark Molinaro, associate executive director and associate teaching professor in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, walked through the teams stopping to offer advice, suggestions and even demonstrated proper knife technique. The competition was a part of NAU’s effort to support the career readiness of the next generation of hospitality professionals in Arizona.

Chef Mark Molinaro showing student chef how to use knife while other young chefs around on their dish around the cooking station
Chef Mark Molinaro shows student-chef chopping techniques while other young chefs chop away.

“We’re thrilled to be able to provide this opportunity for these students,” Molinaro said. “Our goal is to transform lives through culinary arts education, and events like this really bring that to life.”

Many HRM students complete a culinary internship with local culinary partners. Thanks to the support of local industry leaders, who served as judges, the competitors were able to benefit from wide-ranging and diverse feedback given by professionals who worked their way up in the field.

The judges included Dara Wong, owner of Shift Kitchen & Bar, Mike Schmidt, culinary director and partner-owner of That Place Projects, and Jamie Thousand, owner of Satchmo’s BBQ, to name a few. They spoke to the importance of industry engagement in supporting young people’s career readiness, with one chef noting his first position with Pizza Hut.

Wong is a regular visitor to HRM classes where she talks about her restaurant tour experience and menu engineering concepts; she also has been a judge within HRM culinary classes.

Dara Wong observing young chef competitors-three around a hef station with more people cooking and walking around in the background.
Dara Wong observes young chef competitors while they work to finish before the countdown.

“I love being able to work with young people who are attracted to the industry and just starting out. I hope to inspire and guide, and love being involved in their journey,” Wong said. Her first time helping out with C-CAP, Wong was excited to check out even younger culinary talent, many of whom will end up in the HRM class visits or interning at one of her restaurants.

These students received mentorship and encouragement from experienced professionals in the field. The judges spoke fondly of their time in culinary programs, Flagstaff and building their restaurants before observing, guiding tasting and critiquing the dishes. The high school students were mature, serious and receptive to all comments, instructions and suggestions, confirming they’d understood and agreed with a resounding, “Yes, Chef!”

Judges around a black tables with all the salads to taste, critique and judge.
The competition judges taste and critique all the students’ salad submissions

“Industry engagement is crucial in preparing the next generation of culinary professionals. These students get to learn from some of the best in the business, and it makes a huge impact on their development and future success,” Molinaro said.

Sam Bickley in red shirt an dblack apron holding his haute-couture salad which is thinly sliced cucumber wrapper around to hold the salad inside.
Sam Bickley holding his impressive salad submission for the competition.

Future Lumberjack Sam Bickley was among the competing high school students and wowed with his impressive plating. Already set to attend NAU in Fall 2023, Bickley hoped to win and supplement his finances in the fall. He was already following the mentors’ advice, currently working for the Italian restaurant Genuine and is especially fond of making pizza.

“It’s fun tossing it in the air, and you just have to hope it doesn’t get stuck on the ceiling. I love how much customization there is to it,” Bickley said.

Coming from Phoenix, he hopes to transfer to the other restaurant owned by his current employer located in Flagstaff, which happens to be right off campus. Once he’s received his education and plenty of work experience, his long-term aspirations are to be his own boss and open his own restaurant someday. After their practice competition at NAU the students, competed at the C-CAP State competition. They’re off to the National competition, and the winners will be announced in April 2023.

haute-couture salad which is thinly sliced cucumber wrapper around to hold the salad inside.
The cooking competition challenge: a beautiful self-contained salad.

This competition is just one example of how HRM, through its C-CAP program, has transformed lives through culinary arts education. Molinaro sees the culinary arts evolving with more technology, intentional and adaptive thinking and collaboration between businesses. He’s also confident Arizona has the potential to lead the trend toward a local/regional product supply chain. By providing opportunities like this, HRM is helping to equip the next generation of Arizona’s culinary professionals with the skills and experience they need to succeed in their future careers.

“Our HRM team is focused on getting this next generation of inspired hospitality professionals ready to live their best life, find their place to make an impact, and improve the conditions of our beloved industry,” Molinaro said.


NAU logo


Cynthia Gerber | NAU Communications
(928) 523-7341 |


NAU Communications