PENDLETON — In its first full year back in operation, Pendleton High School’s Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America already is sending a student to the national competition.
Allen “Len” Nguyen qualified for FCCLA’s Culinary Arts national competition thanks to a first-place showing at the state competition back in March. Nguyen’s qualification comes after she, her classmates and instructor and culinary arts teacher Melissa Smith put a year’s worth of hard work.
FCCLA is an organization where high schoolers learn real-life skills, such as culinary arts, fashion design and job interviewing. When Smith started teaching at the high school four years ago, the FCCLA program was nowhere to be found. One may have existed in the past, but the remnants were long gone.
Though she was intrigued by the idea, dwindling student interest and pandemic impeded the start of the new program. While some students participated online in 2021, the new in-person school year was the perfect time for Smith to go all in.
“I talked to the kids about it because I was finally ready and excited for it,” Smith said, “Several students were excited too, and that’s how it all came to be.”
Practice is key ingredient
As the new group started to fundraise and prepare for state competitions, Len Nguyen immediately jumped out as an engaged member. Despite not being an officer for the group, the junior — who had just moved from Houston three years prior — quickly took control.
“She was a passionate, hands-on leader,” Smith said, “and very eager with the fundraising. She’d get a lot of other students excited about it all.”
That passion for raising money transferred to a passion for competition — Nguyen decided to compete in culinary arts and put her heart into the work. She practiced with Smith almost every day, leading up to the state competition in Portland.
“She would come in and practice during her free period, during advisory, whenever she could,” Smith said, “She even went to neighbors’ houses, bringing them meals and asking how it tasted.”
Rising to the top
That practice was tested in March when Nguyen and her classmates traveled to Portland for the state competition. With no regional for the Eastern Oregon area, state was Nguyen’s first opportunity to show off her skills.
“I think I over-stressed for the competition at first,” Nguyen said, “It was nerve-wracking. But I was able to calm down, be cool, and do what I normally do.”
She prepared a three-course meal for the judges, allotted only one hour to make bruschetta, carbonara and tiramisu. Though each participant received the list of ingredients weeks in advance, there still were some hiccups in the process. Nguyen dealt with a different cheese than she was expecting, a harder cookie than she practiced with and learned the day of that she had to make her own balsamic glaze.
“The thing that matters most is time management,” she said. “You have an hour to do everything, and you need to have it all come out at the same time so you can give it to the judges hot.”
After all the stress of the day, Nguyen’s practice paid off. Her score of 92.66 was the best of the competition, earning her the gold medal and a trip in late July to San Diego for nationals. Her classmate, Clay Thornton, placed third, narrowly missing out on a nationals appearance.
No time to let up
“I’m incredibly excited for nationals,” Nguyen said. “I’ll get to meet people from all over the world, compete with the best cooks and talk to them. It’ll be my first time ever visiting California.”
Although the junior does not see herself pursuing a cooking career — instead hoping to enter college in the medical field — that was hard to tell from her work process. Smith and Nguyen have practiced every day since school let out, perfecting the dish for nationals: chicken, rice and green beans.
It’s a meal that only the instructor and pupil will get to see her make. Due to financial constraints, no other FCCLA members will travel with the two to California.
“It’s a bit disappointing to go without my friends,” Nguyen said. “I guess I’ll just have to fundraise even harder with everyone next year.”
The two won’t be completely alone, though — groups from La Grande, Enterprise and Umatilla also will be staying with them.
And for a program that did not exist when Smith arrived, it’s a huge step forward. The hospitality instructor is stepping down from teaching following this year, but she already has left a mark. In her wake are a group of students, including Nguyen, who are passionate about FCCLA.
“This program works because of the students, “Smith said, “Kids get other kids excited, not teachers.”