JJC Culinary Team Wins ACF Regional Championships

The Joliet Junior College (JJC) culinary student competition team has once again been crowned the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Student Team of the Year for the central region.

JJC’s team earned the gold medal and finished in first place at the ACF Central U.S. Regional Championships in Port Huron, Michigan, to qualify for the ACF National Convention. The team members include co-captains Olivia Valentino and Nalia Warmack, Ryan Radestski, Nicole Wiseman and Thomas Yanek. They are coached by certified executive chef and JJC culinary instructor Paul Bringas.

“The student team competed against five other teams from the central region,” said Chef Bringas. “The central region is regarded as the toughest one to qualify for nationals. JJC's student team received a solid critique on both their floor score and food score."

The team competition required groups to prepare a four-course meal with six plates of each course. Teams had 20 minutes to set up, 90 minutes to cook, 20 minutes to plate and 20 minutes to clean up.

JJC’s culinary team last won the central region in 2019 and won national titles in 2010 and 2014.

Individual culinary competitors from JJC also competed at the regional competition and placed. Rick Nava competed in the Student Chef of the Year competition, finishing in third. Reigning ACF national Student Chef of the Year Caitlyn Drzyzga competed in the Student Pastry Chef of the Year competition and came in second.

“Rick had a remarkable competition season,” said Chef Bringas. "He was on the team last year and decided to compete solo for the Student Chef of the Year Competition this time. Rick practiced incredibly hard this past season. He put together a beautiful dish with pork as the main protein. We are very proud of Rick and his accomplishments.”

Certified master pastry chef and JJC culinary instructor Andy Chlebana coached Drzyzga in her competition. Though Drzyzga won’t be returning to the national stage, her work is still something to be proud of.

“Caitlyn did a great job,” said Chef Chlebana. "She peaked at the competition. This is what we want to happen. She was on time the entire run, and everything turned out great. She was completely dialed in before the run and did an amazing job.”

Despite being familiar with culinary competition, Drzyzga did have to adapt to a new kind of culinary work.

“Competing in pastry is different than cooking,” said Chef Chlebana. “We organize and approach the competition differently. She adapted well and made some big changes after her first practice run. If there was something I would suggest, she would ask to see it. Then she would come in and practice until she had it down. I am incredibly proud of how far she has come, and I know she will do great things in the future.”

The ACF National Convention is set for Phoenix in July, meaning the JJC student team won’t have the summer off. With Chef Bringas, they will be practicing 2-3 days a week until the national competition.

“The commitment is huge. Practices are long and tough,” said Chef Bringas. “It truly takes a special student to be on the competition team.”