Sunday, May 31, 2009

Young woman with dyslexia named top teen chef in the nation

From the Kansas City Star:

Sammy Jo Claussen is officially the best teen chef in the nation, but she still thinks her grandma makes the tastiest nachos in the world.

The 19-year-old Shawnee Mission North graduate won the title in a cook-off against 33 other regional winners at the Best Teen Chef Final Round Competition at the Art Institute of Charlotte in North Carolina.

As the top teen chef, she will receive a full-tuition scholarship to study culinary arts at the International Culinary School at The Art Institutes International-Kansas City.

She has already spent several weeks this spring practicing her culinary skills at her future college.

The high-tech kitchens, shiny new lab equipment and fast-paced environment at art institute are a far cry from the cozy little kitchen Claussen remembers falling in love with as a child.

Her passion for the culinary arts was born 12 years ago when she began helping her grandmother cook dinner.

The first-grader couldn’t wait to get her hands dirty and bond with her favorite relative.

“We used to make chicken noodle soup from scratch, which was so delicious,” she said. “And my grandma’s face would just fill with happiness after every dish was made. I wanted that same feeling so bad.”

With her grandmother’s encouragement, she started cooking on her own at the age of 12.

By the time she was in her late teens, she had already been a cook for a variety of cuisines. She worked at a Mongolian barbecue, an Italian restaurant, an all-American diner and a country club.

When she was a junior in high school she was accepted into the Broadmoor Technical Center to study culinary arts.

Not bad for a kid who struggles with dyslexia.

“I used to be a horrible reader before I started cooking,” Claussen said. “Now it’s almost like I don’t have it anymore. Reading recipes, watching the Food Network and meeting different chefs at Broadmoor has helped me so much because I’m learning new words every day.”

When the Overland Park student entered the Kansas City Regional Best Teen Chef competition, however, she had an even bigger challenge to face. A bowling accident required her to wear a cast during the tournament.

To make up for her disability, the teenager practiced her knife skills twice a week and eventually practiced her cooking skills twice a day.

At the competition, when she completed her meal — shrimp cocktail, chicken, rice pilaf, green beans and mushrooms — the judges were dazzled. They were not surprised she went on to win the national title.

Steve Venne, the chef director at the Art Institute International-Kansas City, is excited to have Claussen join his student body in the fall.

“She has talent and she’s moldable so I think she will do very well in the industry,” he said. “Her food is always presented well and tasty. I knew she would place in the top five (nationally) for sure.”

This summer, Claussen doesn’t intend to spend much time in the kitchen. She wants to enjoy her time off by relaxing a little bit.

Plus, she still has a few perks to fulfill as the nation’s best teen chef.

As the winner, she will be an intern for a day at the Food Network Kitchens in New York City, which includes a studio tour, dinner for two at a Food Network Chef’s restaurant and a library of Food Network Kitchens cookbooks.

Then it’s off to her dream school.

“I want all kids to know that a learning disability can’t stop your dreams,” she said. “And now because I put my heart out there and worked hard, I don’t have to worry about being in debt because my entire tuition will be paid. I don’t have to work 24 hours. I can spend my free time actually studying.”