Students Compete in Sweets by the Beach Annual Cooking Competition

By Tim Pompey

Three student teams from Channel Islands, Pacifica, and Rio Mesa High Schools competed in the third annual Sweets by the Beach cooking competition at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Oxnard.

If there was ever a cooking competition that could be described as “mouthwatering,” this one is right up there.

The 3rd annual Sweets by the Beach competition sponsored by the Ventura County Civic Alliance (VCCA), the Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD), and the Embassy Suites Hotel in Oxnard was held on Tuesday, May 23 at the Embassy Suites Coastal Grill.

Three student teams from Rio Mesa, Pacifica, and Channel Islands High Schools were given exactly an hour to create a dessert in front of a five-judge panel. The required basic ingredients: chocolate, strawberries, and an exotic spice called tamarind. From there, the students could present anything they wanted.

The Sweets by the Beach competition was launched three years ago as an extension of the OUHSD’s career pathway program in the culinary arts.

According to Mary Ann Rooney, project director for the career pathways trust grant at the Ventura County Civic Alliance, the idea was developed from a conversation between her office and the OUHSD.

“We partnered with the Embassy Suites Hotel to combine a work-based learning opportunity along with their youth and hospitality program,” said Rooney. “We felt it was a good collaboration to work together as a win win for everyone.”

Kristen Ofeldt, chef instructor at Pacifica High School, has watched her students grow from bewildered freshmen to competent juniors and seniors. She puts them through their paces. Everything from basic safety and cleanliness to training in regional foods, international cuisine, pastry training, and such specialties as French cooking, stock, knife cuts, and mother sauces. In their final semester, students do internships at local restaurants.

Chef participants included (l to r): Pacifica High School, April Chavez Betancourt, Teacher Kristen Ofeldt, Christina Carrillo; Channel Islands High School, Raymond Avalos-Gavutyan, Teacher Christie Biddison; Rio Mesa High School, Savannah Wilkinson, Sierra Furagganan, Teacher Cynthia Allen.

Ofeldt sees great value in holding these cooking competitions. “They test the students and push their skills,” she noted. “They also bring awareness to the community and our district about what these kids are doing, what they can do, what they’re learning throughout their years in the Oxnard Union High School District.”

For third-year judge Jon “Mike” Lodi, watching these students cook is impressive. “These students, I don’t know how long they’ve been practicing, but to me, it’s very difficult to do a whole dessert or meal or anything in one hour, especially without a lot of practice,” he observed.

He described his role as a judge. “We’re viewing the three teams,” he stated. “We can observe how they’re cooking, what their techniques are. We look at their recipe. Then we observe how they’re following it. We judge their overall cooking practice, including safety and sanitation, if they’re doing it properly and if they’re going to be on time. And then after the product is plated up, we judge the eye appeal, presentation, taste, and check the texture, the flavor.”

The desserts were judged by a five-panel jury (l to r): Jon “Mike” Lodi, Executive Chef; Richard Varble, Chef, Ventura Rescue Mission; Magda Weydt, Owner, Fresh and Fabulous; Patty Brown, Owner, Dottie’s Sweet Delights; Sean Kingsbury, Chef, Embassy Suites

Lodi thinks this competition is excellent real-world training. As he explained: “The student in my opinion is going to gain experience, especially in timing. One of the big things in the culinary arts is you have to get the meal out on time.”

Even though the students are under pressure to finish their desserts, their attitudes are quite positive. For instance, Junior Sierra Furagganan, and Senior Savannah Wilkinson, both from Rio Mesa High School.

Sierra started this year with the bakery and pastry class. Her inspiration came from watching The Food Network. “Since I was a child, I always watched The Food Network and that was where my interest accumulated over time,” she recalled. “I was particularly inspired by watching Rachael Ray every day.”

The three plated desserts included (l to r): Channel Islands: Strawberry Napoleon; Pacifica: White Chocolate Pastry Creme with a Dark Chocolate Mousse and Pistachio Graham Cracker Crust surrounded by a Chocolate Ring Mold; and the first-place winner, Rio Mesa: Dark Chocolate Panna Cotta with Tamarind Coolie topped with Spicy Caramel Doodahs

Savannah Wilkinson has been in the culinary academy for three years. This is his first year participating in cooking competitions. Her source of inspiration was her step dad. “We would always make homemade mint chocolate chip,” she said. “It was his favorite ice cream to eat.”

Savannah wants to go to Oxnard College to finish her culinary education and then transfer to a university. “I want to be a successful business owner making pastries,” she stated.

April Chavez Betancourt, a Junior from Pacifica High School, called this competition a “fun journey.”

“I’ve done other competitions,” she said, “so it’s like a fun thing. I guess you could call it a hobby. I love cooking. It’s like a sport for me. My favorite part is learning different techniques for cooking. For example, sautéing a vegetable.”

April plans on going to culinary college after graduation and eventually wants to own her own restaurant.

The three teams that participated included:

Rio Mesa High School, Cynthia Allen, Teacher

Student Chefs: Sierra Furagganan, Savannah Wilkinson

Pacifica High School, Kristen Ofeldt, Teacher

Student Chefs: Christina Carrillo, April Chavez Betancourt

Channel Islands High School, Christie Biddison, Teacher

Student Chef: Raymond Avalos-Gavutyan

The first-place Silver Spoon Award went to . . . student chefs Sierra Furagganan and Savannah Wilkinson from Rio Mesa High School.

Second-place went to student chefs Christina Carrillo and April Chavez Betancourt from Pacifica High School.

Third-place went to student chef Raymond Avalos-Gavutyan from Channel Islands High School.

The first-place winners received an official Silver Spoon plaque and an adult supervised free night’s stay at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Second-place winners received a $75 gift certificate to the Coastal Grill. The third-place winner received a $50 gift certificate to the Coastal Grill.

For Pacifica Principal Ted Lawrence, having these opportunities to give students real world experience is a valuable part of the OUHSD’s career pathways training.

“Our academies are all about creating powerful futures for our students,” he said, “so they take all the regular curriculum—math, English, science—everything they need to get their actual high school diploma, but they also are specialized in the culinary field, so they have the options after graduation of either attending college, attending a culinary school, or attaining employment right away.”

For Lawrence, the culinary career pathway and the other career pathways at OUHSD are about giving students a chance to explore their academic and life skills and then achieve their goals.

“When our students have the ability to explore their passions, to achieve powerful futures, and to learn a skill set that’s going to allow them to be successful adults, that’s what we’re all about,” he said.

The student chef first-place winners were from Rio Mesa High School: (l to r) Mary Anne Rooney, Project Director for the Career Pathways Trust Grant at the Ventura County Civic Alliance, student chefs Sierra Furagganan and Savannah Wilkinson, and Clara Galvez, Linked Learning Design Coach.

Photo Credits: Tim Pompey

Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on

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