Future JWU Stars Shine at Future Food Competition

For more than 50 years, Johnson & Wales University has been synonymous with food excellence — and JWU is ready to prepare the next generation of food leaders to address challenges.

JWU’s College of Food Innovation & Technology (CFIT) invited high school seniors and transfer students who plan on pursuing culinary programs at JWU to enter the Future Food Competition, a national recipe contest for savory or sweet dishes. Structured after the National High School Competition that JWU had held decades ago, the reimagined contest attracted over 300 culinary applicants.

All finalists would win a $5,000 scholarship to JWU, renewable each year, and the top five would compete for the ultimate grand prize: a full-tuition JWU scholarship.

The competition was supported by JWU’s longtime partner, RATIONAL Cooking Systems. Along with supplying appliances and materials to the competition and contributing toward the scholarship, RATIONAL will donate an iCombi or iVario cooking system to the grand prize winner’s high school.

RATIONAL oven in a JWU kitchen
High-use and high-impact RATIONAL ovens are used in JWU's Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence, and the Future Food Competition winner's high school will receive one from RATIONAL.

Tackling Food Challenges at JWU

CFIT Dean Jason Evans, Assistant Dean Thomas “TJ” Delle Donne and Assistant Dean Gill Stansfield were tasked with narrowing down the essays, recipes and photos of the dishes to a Top 10 and ultimately to five competitors — the crème of the crème — who would prepare and present their recipes at JWU to a panel of judges.

Why an essay? “It was important to get students thinking about issues related to sustainability, the larger food system, nutrition and how they’re related,” explained Evans. That meant connecting how each recipe addressed at least one critical food system challenge.

For instance, recipes addressing carbon footprint/ecological damage needed to contain local or foraged ingredients; those addressing food waste had to leave minimal waste or use waste or byproducts created by other manufacturing processes, such as “spent” brewer’s grains, while recipes addressing poor nutritional outcomes should replace potentially harmful ingredients like sugar with cost-conscious, readily available and appealing substitutions.

About the Five Finalists

Brock Green from Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania

Brock traveled to JWU with his mother, Shantara Smith. While Brock prepared his upside-down blood orange olive oil cake for the judges, his mom shared how she and Brock have had a wonderful experience so far at JWU. “He’s so excited to be here, and so am I,” she said. “We love the school and are so appreciative of the opportunity.”

Brock had started cooking young, trying his first cooking class at seven, and he has made this recipe several times for his family. She glowed as she talked about Brock while watching him prepare it again, this time projected from a gleaming kitchen at JWU.

photo of Future Food Competition finalist Brock Green concentrating as he prepares his dessert

Brock Green, seen here concentrating hard on his culinary confection, is on his way to living and learning with like-minded students at JWU.

“Seeing his excitement at meeting the competitors and feeling like they were just like him, feeling accepted, is big,” Smith explained. “His doesn’t always have that at home in terms of kids his age who are just as talented and interested in culinary, so I love seeing his excitement to meet like-minded kids.”

Brock’s culinary school back home is small, so she has really enjoyed seeing Brock get to know like-minded culinary artists. “He feels seen for the first time at JWU. As his parent, that makes me feel like he’s where he belongs — and that’s priceless.”

Taylor DiBiase from Bayport (Long Island), New York

Taylor entered the elegant British-inspired dessert that brought her acclaim as the first-ever high school student competing at the collegiate level of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Northeast Regional Student Pastry Chef of the Year Competition. She was supported by her Bayport-Blue Point High School chefs, Matt Kozak and Spyridon “Chef Spiro” Giannakoulopoulos — both JWU alumni themselves.

Taylors’ family — mother Deborah, father Robert and sister Faith — were also by her side and shared their experience at Johnson & Wales over the past two days. “Everyone’s very accommodating, from the CAT ambassadors to Christine Sullivan to Dean Evans who we love; he’s so funny. It’s a really welcome environment,” Taylor’s parents took turns stating. “We appreciate the opportunity for the students to perform in front of some of their future teachers and professors.”

photo of Future Food Competition finalist Taylor DiBiase concentrating as she creates her dessert

Taylor DiBiase recreates the dessert that brought her acclaim as the first-ever high school student competing at the collegiate level of the ACF’s Northeast Regional Student Pastry Chef of the Year Competition.

“It’s great that you don’t feel animosity when they’re together,” Taylor’s sister Faith noted of the finalists. “It’s really inspiring for me to see that you’re competing with yourself to be the best you can. And they’ve already established friendships before they come back in August, so it’s been a great weekend.”

“We’ve seen that there’s a community here at JWU,” Deborah DiBiase added. “It’s not just a cooking school, a regimented thing, but a family.”

Benjamin “Cooper” Leming from Huntertown, Indiana

Cooper credits his family for his early introduction to sustainability. “Something I heard from my mom growing up was ‘We have one Earth’ in reference to someone not recycling or explaining why we composted or grew vegetables in the garden instead of buying them in the store,” he recalled. “We used the food from our garden to make recipes and used the compost to help the garden grow.”

“He’s always been a curious child,” said Cooper’s mom, Brandi Leming. “We had a rule, ‘You can try it, but you have to clean it up when you’re done,’ and he took advantage of cooking and experimenting as long as he cleaned.” Now he’s cooking (and, just like a real Wildcat, cleaning) in a JWU kitchen.

Benjamin "Cooper" Leming concentrates on plating his entree for the Future Food Competition

Benjamin “Cooper” Leming focuses on plating the pan-seared trout that he created to be easily adaptable for anyone to obtain local ingredients and try their own.

The Lemings spoke warmly of their experience at JWU so far. “It’s been amazing,” shared his father. “It feels special. We can tell that you all really want us here.”

“We’re both high school teachers and can tell when kids are being fake,” Cooper’s mother added. “All of the students we’ve met have been truly genuine, and you can tell they really like what they do here.”

Renee Sigmon, Cooper’s culinary teacher, also traveled to JWU to cheer on her protégé. “Cooper originally invented this as an appetizer but wasn’t completely pleased with it — so he continued to refine it into an entrée,” she explained of his pan-seared trout. “He hasn’t let me help with anything.”

As a culinary educator, Sigmon has accompanied Cooper to national Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and ProStart competitions, and she’s thrilled that he’ll attend JWU. “I have two kids and a son-in-law who went here, and I’ve sent lots of kids here over the years. I know JWU’s placement for careers and networking once students are out in the real world, so even if they want to go to other places, I mention JWU,” stated Sigmon.

Cooper’s mother agreed with the benefits of JWU. “He’ll have so much opportunity to create and try for new things, which is what has helped him get where he is today,” Brandi Leming said. “Last spring break we toured the campus, and it instantly felt like home. We joked that we wasted the other college visits, but he was really set on coming here.”

Piper McAloon from Bristol, Rhode Island

Although she didn't have to travel far for the competition, Piper is already going places. She was recently featured in the Boston Globe as the self-taught high school chef making delicious desserts at Foglia, a James Beard Award-nominated vegan restaurant. Piper hopes to open a vegan bakery after earning her JWU degree.

The McAloon family — mother Robin, father Patrick and sister Ruby — were cheering her on every step of the way. “It’s been wonderful to see her recognized and seeing her with people her age doing something like this is great,” her mom said.

photo of Piper McAloon scraping meringue from a mixer with a spatula

Piper McAloon, captured making her Future Food Competition dessert, established herself at just 17 as the talented pastry chef of a James Beard semifinalist vegan restaurant.

Her father shared a wonderful story: as a child, Piper had asked for a JWU sweatshirt. The night before the Future Food Competition, after they had attended Accepted Students Day at JWU, she announced, “Ten-year-old Piper was right!”

“She’s been into this since she was little girl, and she knew early she was passionate about it,” said her mom. “Johnson & Wales was the top of the heap for her; she didn’t apply anywhere else. It’s exciting to see this, and the interaction has been really organic and wonderful; it felt natural to be here. The CAT ambassadors and faculty and staff have been so helpful and welcoming. Everyone is really down to earth and easy to talk to,” Robin McAloon noted.

Added Piper’s sister, Ruby: “It’s been cool to see the people she’ll be going to school with. The CAT ambassadors are super awesome; it’s cool to know they’re here.”

“It seems like a great community of people, very welcoming,” added Patrick McAloon.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Smith from Charleston, South Carolina

Gabby traveled with her mother, Roberta, and her brother, Robear, but she also had an entourage from JWU’s Charlotte Campus in Providence to support her, including Director of Admissions Kortni Campbell and Admissions Event Manager Jarod Clemente.

“It’s been great, more than you’d think,” said Robear of their JWU experience. “At first I thought it was just a culinary arts school, but there’s so many other things here like business and design.”

On Saturday, he was grappling with the magnitude of the competition. “Going from cooking in the kitchen to being on camera like this, that’s huge steps forward,” Robear said, gesturing at his sister and her fellow competitors visible on screen as they prepared their dishes. “They all have their own style of cooking, they’re so versatile. And the fact that JWU is only choosing five out of the entire nation — it’s an awesome accomplishment.”

a photo of Gabby Smith concentrating as she prepares food in a kitchen

Gabby Smith, already an entrepreneur as the creator of pop-up gourmet chef service Hot Box Kitchen in Charlestown, South Carolina, focuses on creating her Future Food Competition entry.

Her mom shared just how long Gabby has loved the culinary arts. “Her great-grandma used to babysit her, and she had Gabby cooking at 3-1/2 or four years old,” Roberta shared. “It was something they did together to pass the time, and now it’s her passion.”

On top of videotaping the event for Gabby’s dad who wasn't able to attend, Roberta served as primary cheerleader, sporting a sweatshirt for Gabby’s pop-up gourmet meal prep and catering business, Hot Box Kitchen, which specializes in elevating Gullah cuisine and blending cultures through food innovation.

“She loves food,” Roberta said of Gabby. “It’s not just for consumption, but to her it has a soul. She’s been big on sustainability since she was eight and visited a farm on a school trip and immediately asked to visit quarterly so she could talk to farmers in different seasons. Since then, she has helped out with organic farming and culinary classes at Fields Farm and last month Gabby was their guest chef — so it’s all come full circle!”

Prepping for the Competition

After the normal college experience of attending Accepted Students Day, getting to know fellow incoming students as well as current Wildcats, faculty and staff who would be their teachers, friends and supporters in the coming years, the Future Food Competition finalists got down to business. They visited their spaces in JWU’s Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence (CCCE) building to review the equipment and ingredients secured for them, get comfortable with the space and do any advance prepping.

On Saturday, March 16, the competitors gathered in the CCCE, where they had two hours to prepare their meals between 10am-noon, racing back and forth in their chefs whites checking on various elements of their dishes. Meanwhile, their many supporters —families, current educators and limited JWU faculty, students and staff — were able to see the finalists’ movements broadcasted via video feed onto a huge screen.

Unlike “Top Chef” and other high-pressure shows, this was not a head-to-head cooking competition. Instead, the students recreated the recipes they had entered in the contest. For those two hours, the chef’s whites-clad students domineered their kitchens, focused fully on their dishes.

Presenting to the Judges

A burst of applause accompanied each student as they individually carried their dishes to present to the judges. In addition to explaining their recipe, each contestant spoke about why they created it and what challenge(s) it addressed. In addition to the verbal presentation, their plates were judged visually and by taste.

The panel of judges included Sam Burgess, RATIONAL Certified Chef (and JWU Alum); CFIT Assistant Dean TJ Delle Donne; Culinary Arts Department Chair Valeria Molinelli and Culinary Department Chair Michael Makuch.

Brock’s Upside-Down Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake

Brock explained that he wanted to make sure there was not only no food waste but that the ingredients promoted health in a fun way. “I decided to use the entire orange rind because there would be no waste, and it’s also rich in antioxidants (anthocyanins) and vitamin C,” he said. “I also wanted to be cognizant of my carbon footprint, so I learned about eco-friendly practices from local Philadelphia chefs Toni Hicks and Lagia Richtero. I gathered my ingredients from the South Philly Food Co-op, a local grocery store that focuses on sustainability, as well as my local farmer’s market and local H-mart to do as little damage to the environment as possible.”

a closeup photo of Brock Green's plated entry to the Future Food Competition

Brock’s upside-down blood orange olive oil cake awaits tasting by the judges.

He continued, “For the sauce and the garnishes, I also wanted to be mindful of not having food wasted, while also incorporating the flavor components that I envisioned, and I made sure to try and incorporate all my ingredients into every dish component to show how things can be reused instead of wasted. I made hibiscus candy by cooking the flower in a simple syrup, then blended the candies with powdered sugar to flavor my sauce and chantilly cream. I then made a citrus-salted honeycomb toffee to give my plate a bit of crunch, while a contrast of salt brings out the other components of my dish. Finally, I wanted to promote more health benefits by using honey, an ingredient good for gut health.”

Taylor’s British Orange Ginger Cake

Taylor also advocated for ingredients having multiple uses to minimize waste. “Citrus fruits can be used for zesting, flavoring sauces, segmenting the fruit and for fresh juice,” she noted. “Nontraditional parts of the fruit are often just thrown out, but by strategically using the fruit, each component has a purpose. I squeezed the pulp for fresh blood orange juice to add to the compote as well. The cake soak was also used with minimal food waste in mind. It was used for the cake as well as plating.”

Her cake incorporated blood orange compote, banana gnocchi with a dark rum sauce, spiced banana doughnut, orange crème anglaise, chocolate feuilletine soil, dark chocolate and ice cream finished with Maldon sea salt and orange blossom tuile.

a photo of the fancy dessert created by Taylor DiBiase for the Future Food Competition

Taylor’s plated British orange ginger cake could double as abstract art.

“I learned the importance of an open mind in the kitchen, allowing me to appreciate the simple fruit of an orange and its endless possibilities,” said Taylor. “Food waste is a problem we can solve, and I want to help create change in favor of the environment and our stomachs.”

Cooper’s Pan-Seared Trout

To draw attention to issues in maintaining sustainability, Cooper prepared his dish two different ways for the judges.

“The contrasting sides of the plate mirror the effects of climate change that will occur if sustainability is not achieved,” he explained. “The deep-fried half of the plate is much heavier than the light natural side, a jarring reminder of the weight of the issue of climate change. Both bites have a crunch both from the fish and accompanying components.”

Cooper Leming's dish sits in the forefront as judges in the background takes notes during the Future Food Competition

The contrasting sides of Cooper’s entrée, shown here awaiting tasting by the judges, mirror the effects of climate change that will occur if sustainability isn’t achieved.

He chose trout because it’s a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to salmon, and like all of his dish’s ingredients, it can be found in Indiana’s rivers, forests or backyards. He accompanied his trout with pea puree, candied pistachios, cranberry pear vinaigrette, red chimichurri and deep-fried potatoes and capers. It may sound complicated, but all ingredients are accessible and tasty.

“The cooking methods are not overly complex, so those with limited culinary experience can adapt and make their own,” Cooper noted. “The protein is easily substituted with other local fish as brook trout is not local everywhere. The vinaigrette is made using a local small business’ olive oil further supporting local tradition. As food transitions to accessibility from local communities, recipes need to be easily adaptable to ingredients that anyone can obtain.”

Piper’s Vegan Baked Alaska

Piper focused on how vegan dishes reduce both food waste and carbon footprint. “As greenhouse gasses from livestock farming are becoming an increasing issue, vegan desserts have a significantly lower carbon, ecological and water footprint,” she explained. “Many studies have noted veganism as the best thing a single person can do to adapt their lifestyle in order to combat climate change.” She also addressed the ethics of vegan food: “Commercial livestock farms treat their animals terribly. They are basically living on top of each other being fed non-nutritious food that barely meets the standard to be fed to animals, never mind humans.”

Her dish consisted of a brownie, ice cream domes, raspberry coulis, meringue substitute and cookie crumbles — all with 100% vegan ingredients.

a closeup photo of a plate of Baked Alaska

Piper’s Baked Alaska is made from entirely vegan ingredients.

“Aquafaba is the liquid found in a can of chickpeas or of any white bean,” she explained of her meringue substitute. “It is the most versatile vegan egg replacement as it can whip, bind and emulsify. People often drain the can, but it is really a secret weapon to vegan cooking and baking because of its low impact on the environment as well as its ability to limit food waste in the kitchen.”

Gabby’s Spicy Fish Fumet

“I chose to highlight food heritage and the Gullah Geechee community with my dish,” Gabby noted of her Sea Island pea succotash with Sea Island blackened grouper, fried mustard greens and a tomato gravy. The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and brought to the southern United States, and Gabby wants to help educate people on the cultural history behind the spices they purchase in grocery stores.

“During the transatlantic slave trade, Sea Island peas were brought over by enslaved people, and the crop was placed in what is now Saint Helena Island, South Carolina,” she explained. “By combining traditional recipes, traditional ingredients, heirloom ingredients and organic ingredients, I was able to put a spin on a dish that is local and simple — yet could serve as a fine dining choice.”

a photo of Gabby Smith adding the final garnishes to plates of food on a kitchen counter

Gabby adds the final touches to her spicy fish fumet before presenting her dish to the judges.

Gabby’s cooking methods focused on sustainability. She used all food waste, including fish bones, in her stock for her aromatic tomato gravy. She brought her own spices with her to the competition to ensure full flavor. “When you blend together cayenne, paprika, coriander, celery, all these fragrant spices, it all comes together so well,” she said. “I think when you familiarize yourself with the current aromatics, different seasonings, you can grow as a chef you can grow as a foodie. You become better as your palate expands — a better cook and a better eater.”

And the Winner Is….

After some delicious deliberation among the judges and collective breath-holding in the room, CFIT Dean Evans announced the winner of the full JWU scholarship: Gabby Smith.

“That was a beautiful dish,” he told Gabby, “And watching you in the kitchen was just smooth as can be and super calm. We’re so proud of you” —he caught sight of Gabby’s mom, Roberta, hugging equally tearful JWU admissions team members — “and clearly your family and community are proud of you.”

Evans praised all five Future Food Competition finalists for their accomplishment. “I eat world-class food at Johnson & Wales every day, and you should know — you all did great,” he stated.

“I hope you feel that passion from all of your instructors,” Evans continued. “You’re all winners, and four of you will receive a $5,000 scholarship, renewable each year up to four years, as a cherry on top of other scholarship money. RATIONAL has been an important friend to JWU, helping to equip labs and put on exciting programming like our speaker series and FIT Symposium, and we appreciate RATIONAL’s role in helping us award these scholarships as well. We have really made an investment in all of you. I know that’s pressure on you to do us proud; don’t take that honor lightly. Make great use of it, as we know you will.”

an action shot of CFIT Dean Jason Evans speaking to a room of people

“I eat world-class food at Johnson & Wales every day, and you should know — you all did great,” CFIT Dean Jason Evans stated, applauding all five Future Food Competition finalists.

“You’re exceptional, all of you,” Evans concluded.

What’s Next for the Winner

Gabby will begin pursuing her Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship degree this fall at JWU’s Charlotte Campus. “I want to hone in on my technical skills and life skills,” she said. “But most importantly, I think I am excited to network.”

“I hope one day to be a household name, so I think that Johnson & Wales is the perfect fit for me — seeing all the JWU alumni and the people that have come out of JWU is inspiring, and I want to be like them.” - Future Food Competition winner Gabby Smith

She envisions being a private or personal chef after JWU. “In the future, I want to really connect with guests who are eating my food. I want to see you enjoy what it means.”

She hopes to get the business and managerial skills to expand Hot Box Kitchen, possibly even pursuing a master’s degree in accounting to ensure she has all the technical as well as soft skills to be successful.

photo of two women, Gabby Smith and her mother Roberta, hugging

Winner Gabby Smith, right, and her mother, Roberta, embrace after learning that Gabby has won a full scholarship to JWU.

“I hope one day to be a household name, so I think that Johnson & Wales is the perfect fit for me — seeing all the JWU alumni and the people that have come out of JWU is inspiring, and I want to be like them.”

“Sharing food, sharing ingredients and sharing experiences is a big part of cooking, and I think that's always going to be my mission — to share with people and help people enjoy what I cook,” Gabby said.

Judge and Community Reactions

The room bubbled with praise for all five finalists. The JWU community can’t wait to have Brock, Taylor, Cooper, Piper and Gabby here, and as the five posed together for photos, it looks like they may have already found some college friends.

group photo of the five Future Food Competition finalists standing in a row dressed in their chef's whites
Gabby, Taylor, Piper, Brock and Cooper pose together in their chef's whites, all having brought their best to the Future Food Competition.

As a Future Food Competition judge, Sam Burgess enjoyed an inside look at how RATIONAL helps educate the next generation of chefs. “It was quite an undertaking to review all those contestants, and truly, JWU selected five of the best people they could have for this competition,” he stated. “RATIONAL’s and JWU’s partnership helps people understand how technology can make food better, more consistent and with less food waste. It was incredible to see students who are still in high school really push that idea forward in storytelling through food. Everything was amazing, but Gabby Smith made one of the best dishes I've had in a very long — beyond restaurant quality.”

photo of two people, Gabby Smith and Sam Burgess, posing and smiling

Future Food Competition winner Gabby Smith and RATIONAL competition judge Sam Burgess pose for a photo.

Lead judge Delle Donne was equally honored to be part of the experience. “Every single student that came here today to put out a dish to taste was beyond amazing,” he said. “This was such an incredible experience, from reviewing and reading all of the amazing essays and recipes to narrowing down our list of finalists to announcing the winner. The scoring was so close — too close for comfort — but Gabby’s calmness in the kitchen, organization, her introduction of her dish and why she chose that dish was just profound — not to mention the dish was delicious.”

“They’re all so lovely,” JWU Providence Director of Admissions Visitor Programs Christine Sullivan said, having enjoyed getting to know the students and their families over the weekend. “They’re all winners in my book.”

Kortni Campbell was privileged to be able to see all five finalists in action, and she is thrilled that Gabby is joining the Charlotte Campus community. “I cannot say enough about this amazing young woman — her skill, her perspective and her passion,” said Campbell. “This was her first-ever competition, and she availed herself beautifully among very strong competitors.”

Hope for the Future of Food

Evans shared some final thoughts on future culinary students after seeing Brock, Taylor, Cooper, Piper and Gabby in action. “You might have noticed that JWU students are in classes today,” he informed them. “Those are voluntary skills labs offered on Fridays and Saturdays. You guys are already showing that level of commitment to something you love, and that will pay off with success.”

“When I see you in the kitchen, taking what you’re doing so seriously and clearly having spent so much of your young lives cooking, baking and sticking with it, really honing your craft and your passion, I see people who have already proved that they have drive and talent. That aligns with the Johnson & Wales model: we produce students that really appreciate the virtues of work, because they're working toward something that they know is important.”

closeup photo of CFIT Assistant Dean TJ Delle Donne speaking to a crowd

“You’re doing what you were placed on this earth to do, and if JWU can make your dreams come true, I seriously want to be a part of that,” CFIT Assistant Dean TJ Delle Donne told the culinary competitors.

“I can’t wait to work with you, and I know the faculty can’t wait,” Delle Donne told all five finalists. “This is a place where dreams come true; if it wasn’t for JWU I wouldn’t be where I am today, and to share that with students is a real honor. Today you showed up, brought your best and blew us away. Thank you for demonstrating pure professionalism, which we take very seriously here, and such talent for your age. You’re doing what you were placed on this earth to do, and if JWU can make your dreams come true, I seriously want to be a part of that.”

Apply to JWU

Transfer to JWU

Visit JWU