At the H-E-B Celebrity Cook-off the last few years, the big winners haven’t been professional chefs who have years of experience under their belts. Instead, those who have been consistently taking home the top prizes have been students in the Academy of Culinary Arts at University High School.
The culinary program at University wasn’t much more than a home economics class when experienced chefs Michael Osborne and Reannon Ruark took it over about six years ago. The program has about 200 students, and for those who stay all four years, “they can get a pretty good background, and then they can find out that they can do amazing things,” Osborne said.
Both Osborne and Ruark are classically-trained chefs, “and we really wanted to push the French technique because with the way Waco is expanding, higher-end hotels are coming in, and we wanted kids that aren’t just flipping burgers,” Ruark said.
Graduates and current students in University’s culinary arts program are running or working in kitchens at 135 Prime, Pivovar and Cultura Mia, all in Waco; one went on to study at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin. And even if a student doesn’t plan on a culinary career, the program can still have benefits.
“What I tell my kids is, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen from you participating in this class? The worst thing that can happen is, you’re going to have some life skills that are going to make you and your family happy for the rest of your life, because you’re going to put some good food in front of them,’” Osborne said.
Several times each semester, the program opens its dining room to the public for lunch. The last lunch of the semester will be April 16, with a menu that is scheduled to include chicken fried steak with jalapeno cream gravy. The students and teachers also team up to offer catering services. Ruark can be contacted for information on catering or lunch reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos of the students’ work can be seen on Instagram at @UHSCulinaryArts.
Ruark previously worked for Aramark, the dining service at Baylor University, and Osborne has worked as a private chef, at the Cooking Connection in the H-E-B on Wooded Acres Drive and as an instructor in TSTC’s culinary arts program.
At the most recent H-E-B Celebrity Cook-off, the students won awards for best entree, best dessert and top chef, and also took home the People’s Choice award. This year’s menu consisted of a Tex-Mex risotto and braised short ribs with tomatoes “and lots of peppers,” Osborne said. The award-winning dessert was Bananas Foster Baklava, from a recipe created by Ruark.
“She concocted this thing,” Osborne said. “She’s really good at baklava, and we’ve kind of been on this banana pudding kick. So she combined the two. We had layers of caramelized bananas and pastry cream between sheets of phyllo, and it made a beautiful dessert, really tasty.”
“It was even better the next day,” Ruark said.
The students won multiple awards at the cook-off in 2022 as well, including best entree for Fried Quail with Andouille-Crawfish Gravy and Grits, though chicken can be substituted if quail isn’t available. We haven’t included a recipe for fried quail or chicken. You can use your recipe for either, or you can buy fried chicken from your favorite local restaurant.
- 3 3/4 cups flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 cup cake flour
- 2 1/4 tablespoons baking powder
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 2 sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
- 2 cups buttermilk
Heat oven to 425. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment.
Combine flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter; set aside.
Cut the butter into the flour mixture using your hands or a pastry blender. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Stir with fingers until you have a tacky dough.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Knead 2 to 3 times. Pat dough into a 1/2-inch thick circle. Cut the dough into rounds. Place biscuits onto sheet pans. Brush tops with melted butter and bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Makes about 24 biscuits.
- 64 ounces spring water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 quart slow-cook grits (The University students use Homestead Heritage Gristmill Grits)
- 64 ounces chicken stock
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 12 ounces unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 8 ounces smoked gouda cheese, grated
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
In a Dutch oven, bring the water and salt to a boil. Use a whisk to create a vortex. Pour the grits into the vortex, stirring constantly. In a saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a simmer. As the grits absorb the water and begin to thicken, reduce the heat to a simmer. Use an 8-ounce ladle to add chicken broth, stirring until the grits thicken again.
Continue to stir frequently and add more broth until the grits are cooked through and are creamy and tender, about an hour. Stir in the cream.
Remove the pan from the heat. Beat the butter into the grits a few pieces at a time. Beat the cheese and pepper into the grits. The consistency should be thick but not too stiff. Taste and adjust seasoning. If the grits are too dry, add a little more water. Makes about 16 servings.
Fried Chicken (or Quail) with Andouille-Crawfish Gravy, Grits and Pickled Peppers
For the Pickled Peppers:
- 6 Fresno peppers, sliced into thin rounds
- 6 jalapeno peppers, sliced into thin rounds
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1 cup simple syrup (1 cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup hot water)
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup salt
- 2 tablespoons pickling spice
Place the peppers in a glass jar. In a saucepan, combine vinegar, simple syrup, water, brown sugar and pickling spice. Bring to a simmer and cook until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour the hot liquid over the sliced peppers and cool to room temperature. Seal and refrigerate.
For the Andouille-Crawfish Gravy:
- 1/2 stick (or 1/4 cup) butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1/4 cup shallots, minced
- 1/4 cup jalapeno peppers, minced
- 1/4 cup Fresno peppers, minced (jalapenos can be substituted if Fresnos not in season)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon Cajun spice (The students use Chef Geoffrey Michaels’ Cajun Breakdown)
- 8 ounces andouille sausage, diced
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups half & half
- 8 ounces crawfish tails
- 2 ounces smoked gouda cheese, shredded
- 2 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 ounces pepper jack cheese, grated
- Hot sauce (such as Tabasco), to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Place a large skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter and when it melts, add the flour all at once.
Stir to make a blond roux, about 8-10 minutes. The roux is ready when it’s a light golden color. Sauté shallots, peppers and garlic in the roux for 1 minute. Season with Cajun spice. Add the sausage and sauté for another minute. Whisk in the chicken stock a little at a time until there are no lumps. Stir in half and half. Add crawfish tails and heat through. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheeses until melted and the sauce is smooth. Season to taste with hot sauce, salt and pepper.
To assemble the dish, spoon a generous amount of grits onto the center of the plate. Place half a biscuit atop the grits and drizzle some gravy over the top. Place fried chicken atop the biscuit. Place pickled peppers on top of the chicken. Balance the top biscuit alongside the chicken. Serve hot. Makes about 10 servings.
Bananas Foster Baklava
For the honey syrup:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/4 cups honey
- 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (zest the lemon before juicing, and set the zest aside)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
For the nut filling:
- 12 ounces shelled unsalted pistachios or pumpkin seeds
- 12 ounces walnut or pecan pieces
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
For the caramelized bananas:
- 2 bananas, cut into 1-inch thick coins
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
- Sprinkle of cinnamon
For the pastry cream:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 eggs
- 1 yolk
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 recipe caramelized bananas
For the baklava:
- 1 pound package phyllo dough, thawed
- 1 1/2 cups butter, melted
To make the honey syrup, combine all the honey syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring to a full boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. (Don’t walk away as it may boil over.) Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, without stirring, for 5 minutes, but watch it carefully. Remove from the heat and cool completely. The honey syrup can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 4 days.
To make the nut filling, pulse the pistachios (or pumpkin seeds) and walnuts or pecans in a food processor until very finely chopped. Add the cinnamon, sugar, lemon zest and salt to the nuts and mix well. Set aside.
To make the bananas, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the banana slices in a single layer and then sprinkle on the brown sugar and cinnamon. Toss gently to coat each slice.
Cook the bananas for 4 minutes, flip and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes or until they’re caramelized on both sides. Be sure to watch the pan and gently move the bananas around a little so that they don’t stick.
To make the pastry cream, in a large bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk with the sugar. Add in the flour, cornstarch and salt, and whisk everything to combine.
In a large saucepan, heat the milk until hot, but not boiling. Pour about 1/4 cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously as you pour. Add another 1/4 cup of hot milk and again whisk vigorously to combine. Gradually stream in the rest of the hot milk, whisking the egg mixture the entire time.
Pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and whisk over medium-low heat just until the mixture begins to thicken into a pudding-like consistency and appears to bubble.
Add the vanilla and butter and whisk to combine. If your cream has any lumps in it, keep whisking to smooth them out. Gently fold in the caramelized bananas.
Transfer the pastry cream to a shallow baking dish and place plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the cream. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled. Makes 2 1/2 cups.
To make the baklava, heat the oven to 325. Brush a 9-inch springform pan or 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter. Set aside.
Carefully unfold the phyllo onto a large cutting board and cover with plastic wrap, then a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying. Set aside.
Place one phyllo sheet in the bottom of the baking pan and brush with butter. Repeat with 7 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter. Make sure there are no large bubbles of air trapped under the phyllo. The air bubbles can be smoothed out with the pastry brush easily.
Spread 1/3 of the nut mixture over the phyllo. Cover the nuts with another sheet of phyllo. Drizzle with butter instead of brushing as the phyllo will slip and move if you use pressure. Repeat with 5 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter.
Layer a generous portion of the pastry cream over the phyllo, then repeat with 6 sheets of phyllo and butter, and then the last of the nuts. Finish the stack with 8 or 10 sheets of the phyllo, brushing all but the final sheet with butter.
Using the palms of your hands, gently compress the layers, starting in the center and working outward to remove any air pockets. Drizzle about 4 tablespoons melted butter on the top layer and brush to cover the entire surface.
Using a sharp knife with a pointed tip, cut the baklava into 4 strips, then working within one strip at a time, make two diagonal cuts, 1 inch apart, parallel to one side of strip to form a diamond shape. Repeat on each strip until you have uniform diamonds. (If using a springform pan, cut the baklava into about 16 slices.)
Bake until golden and crisp, about 1 hour, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Immediately after removing the baklava from the oven, slowly pour the cooled honey syrup over the cut lines until about 1/2 cup remains. Drizzle remaining syrup over the surface. Sprinkle each piece with a pinch of nut mixture. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, about 4 hours. Cover with foil and let stand at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight before serving. Baklava can be wrapped tightly in foil and kept refrigerated up to 5 days. Makes about 16 servings.