Top Chef

After scorching the competition at the Central Regional Conference, local chef extraordinaire Kelly Conwell, 22, will compete on July 11 for the highly coveted title Student Chef of the Year at the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) National Convention in Orlando, Fla.

Conwell, a recent graduate of the Johnson County Community College culinary arts program, will be one of four young chefs challenged to prepare a three-course classical menu in two and a half hours, proving once and for all whose cuisine reigns supreme. 

With JCCC associate professor Chef Felix Sturmer by her side, Conwell is more than confident she can turn up the heat for the showdown.

“[We have to] make sure that we go into this with a winning attitude,” she says. “That’s why you go – to get first place. You have to have that go get ’em attitude.” 

For months, Conwell and Sturmer have perfected their classical menu infused with progressive techniques and have been critiqued by local chefs and students. 

“My strength is not getting so stressed out under pressure,” she says. “You just have to stay calm [because] you can only do so much at one time, and it’s an adrenaline rush.”

On the Saturday morning of the National Convention, Conwell will awaken early to calm herself before the high-stakes cook-off begins. After years competing in culinary challenges on the JCCC Youth Team, she has come to expect the unexpected and will have to wait until the President’s Ball to hear the judges’ results.

“You never know; they could tell you everything was perfect, everything was great and then the awards come and you get third,” says Conwell. “So I have a few days to sit and ponder and wonder what [I] could have done differently.”

In spite of the nail-biting interim, Conwell will use the downtime to mingle with some of the industry’s elite including legendary chefs and culinary sponsors and vendors from across the nation. 

“It’s about socializing and interacting with other people who could someday hook you up with a job – it’s all about the connections,” says Conwell.

If she wins the title, she will represent the United States at Internationals in Chile. But always the planner, Conwell’s plan B is a prestigious work-study fellowship in Germany, an opportunity that might hamper her chances of winning.

“It’s not like I want to count my chickens before they hatch, but if I win, are [the ACF judges] going to still let me go to Germany and then compete in Chile, or are they going to say, ‘Okay, you won, but you can’t go because you’re leaving?’ It would be the ACF’s decision if they would want to send me.” 

Although she’s unsure about the near future’s outcome, Conwell aspires to one day become an ACF judge and open her own critically acclaimed restaurant on the outskirts of some larger city in Texas where her parents hope to retire someday. 

“I think when you ask any chef, this is a lifestyle that you choose,” says Conwell. “You eat, breathe and sleep it. As intense as it is, I like it, and it’s for me.”

words: Coco Owens

photos: Paul Versluis