Putting culinary skills to the test
Dawson Bakunas, LLCC Culinary Arts student, had taken the classes and practiced the skills leading up to this moment — the national SkillsUSA culinary competition. He was testing his skills against those of other students from across the country.
The contest was held in the middle of a large arena, which housed hundreds of small kitchen stations — one for each student. There were long tables with an assortment of kitchen tools, pots and pans. Each set of two stations shared pantries and refrigerators, which held mystery baskets of ingredients.
Competitors were provided the same ingredients and supplies, and had to write and prepare menus in five hours. Judges were looking for such factors as creativity, taste, plating, sanitation and fundamental skills.
“The first two hours went fast as you’re burning through the prep work. During the second half I started to feel the pressure. The entrée section was the toughest, taking longer than the appetizer and soup phases,” explains Bakunas. “But I was in a zone, working to get through. I loved doing it.”
Bakunas’ skills rose to the top, earning him seventh place in the competition. Culinary arts was among 110 hands-on skill and leadership competitions. He also earned an American Culinary Federation certification at the event.
“Being a part of this competition really brought my skills to another level,” he says. “It was a chance to show off what I have been learning, and it was a lot of fun.”
Bakunas advanced to nationals after being named a first-place gold winner at the state competition in Peoria. He was one of three LLCC Workforce Institute students to qualify for the national competition.
Finding his calling
Bakunas began studying culinary arts in fall 2022. “I had been studying social work, but it wasn’t turning out to be what I wanted to do for a career,” reflects Bakunas. “What I was really enjoying was cooking for myself at home. I had also worked at Chili’s as a to-go server and was enticed by the fun and intensity of the kitchen work.
“So, rather impulsively, I decided to go into fine dining, to start by going to culinary school, then I’d work and learn even more. And once I made up my mind, I became very focused.
“I remember being a little nervous at first because I had only been cooking a little at home. But I could see progress in real time. It kept me going. I was able to come to class and apply what I learned right away.
“In the LLCC Culinary program, I found a great experience I didn’t get from other classrooms. Culinary is something you’ll want to learn from real industry leaders, not a video or cookbook. The instructors here have a ton of industry experience and teach you what they’ve learned.”
Internship at Indigo
This fall, Bakunas is completing an internship experience, the capstone class in earning his degree. He is a sauté cook at Indigo in Springfield.
“The internship that students complete as part of the Culinary Arts associate degree program is a twofold opportunity,” says Sheridan Lane, director, culinary program and operations at LLCC. “First and foremost, it is a work-based learning experience, which extends exposure to executing menu items. Secondly, the internship requires that students complete a leadership project.”
The leadership project is intended to be beneficial to the business and the student as they push their culinary management skills to the next level.
“The internship is a time to self-reflect on what they learned and an opportunity to propel their careers forward,” adds Lane.