West Boca teen stirs up a career in cooking

Paige DeSimone is determined to be the top chef.

The challenge for the 17-year-old junior at West Boca Raton High School’s Culinary Academy: Create a world-class dish that could be served in the finest restaurants, do it in just an hour and do it against competitors who are older and more experienced.

Later this month, DeSimone will compete in a regional contest in Birmingham, Ala., for the American Culinary Federation’s Student Chef of the Year, going up against twentysomethings who already have graduated from culinary college.

If she wins the regional contest, she will go on to the national event.

“It’s definitely something unique,” Leah Craig, communications manager for the American Culinary Federation, said about DeSimone qualifying for the regional contest. “We don’t normally get high school students. Usually, they’re culinary students or graduates.”

Unique defines DeSimone.

The West Boca teen is a part-time cook at The Breakers Palm Beach, the youngest cook there. Jeff Simms, executive chef of banquets at The Breakers, offered her the job after she and a partner won a silver medal in a cooking competition where she competed against professional chefs.

She’s captain of her cooking team at West Boca. In October, she won first place for an edible-centerpiece competition for high school students at an ACF event.

Having caught the cooking bug at an early age, she already had become addicted to the thrill of competition.

“Let’s do it,” she said about entering cooking contests. “Let’s see how far I can get.”

That drive to mix it up in the kitchen came at an early age, said her mother, Lisa Seeley.

“When other kids were watching cartoons or SpongeBob SquarePants, Paige was watching the Food Network,” Seeley said.

DeSimone always wanted to be in the kitchen. She hung out there with her parents while they cooked and baked. She picked up the basics standing on a stool to reach the counter and wearing her own smock.

She remembers at a young age heading to the kitchen out of boredom to experiment, and creating her own concoctions.

“It usually looked really nasty but it tasted really good,” she said.

She attended summer camps at the Lincoln Culinary Institute, formerly the Florida Culinary Institute, in West Palm Beach.

By middle school, she knew she would spend her life in the kitchen. She applied to the culinary academy at West Boca High School in seventh grade, a year too early. She was asked to reapply again the following year.

As a sophomore, she became actively involved in the ACF Palm Beach County Chefs Association, where she forged relationships with some of the best chefs in the county.

That has made a difference in DeSimone’s development, said Nancy Hall, one of DeSimone’s mentors and department chair at the high school culinary academy.

“She is much more involved than most of the kids,” she said. “She goes ahead and puts herself in front of the chefs.”

At her first chapter meeting, DeSimone went on a tour of The Breakers and was mesmerized. She told her mother she would work there someday.

“This is my dream job,” she said.

She started working at the hotel in November. One day a week, she prepares hors d’oeuvres and entrees for weddings, banquets and cocktail parties. She works in front of and interacts with guests at carving and omelet stations.

“Based on her age and what she has accomplished this far, if she keeps going at this rate, the sky is the limit,” Simms said. “My goal is to keep her here as long as we can.”

The executive chefs in the chefs association nominated DeSimone for the upcoming regional competition. They have taken an interest in DeSimone and want to build her up, Hall said.

She plans to prepare a veal tenderloin course that takes “a lot of steps and require a lot of skill,” Hall said.

She is preparing a roast bacon and spinach wrapped veal tenderloin with red wine reduction, a veal sweat bread and wild mushroom ragout with butter-poached lobster and lobster sauce. The dish will include haricot verts and butternut squash with roast fingerling potato.

It’s a dish that could be served in the finest restaurants, and DeSimone has to complete two servings in an hour.

“This is the hardest dish I’ve ever prepared,” she said.

Leading up to the competition, she’s practicing several times a week in the kitchens of professional chefs. Simms believes she has what it takes to win the contest, though he sees her as the underdog.

Still, the chefs association has enough confidence in DeSimone that she will participate in Culinary Creations, the group’s signature fundraiser in May, in which the top chefs in the county prepare four-course meals. Alongside those chefs, DeSimone will be preparing an appetizer.

After high school, DeSimone plans to attend culinary college even though Hall believes that, with her level of achievement now, she may not need it.

She aspires to be a sous chef at The Breakers and become executive chef someday.

No one doubts she can do it.

“She’s already on a fantastic track,” Hall said.

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