OWOSSO — An Owosso High School graduate has won first place in a national culinary contest.
Kylie Lewis, 18, used the skills she learned while in high school to outcook her competitors in the recent 2020 NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technical and Scientific Olympics, snagging a two-year scholarship at the Culinary Arts Institute of America in New York.
“I cried like a baby,” Lewis, a 2020 OHS grad, said of the moment when she found out she’d won the gold medal in the culinary arts category. “Then my phone started blowing up.”
Lewis is a 2020 graduate of the Shiawassee Regional Education Service District and OHS culinary arts programs, and is currently enrolled in at the Culinary Arts Institute at Mott Community College.
For 10 months before the NAACP contest, while she was still in high school, Lewis was mentored by Chef Matthew B. Cooper, Mott’s culinary arts program coordinator.
“I was just slightly nervous before the competition — it seemed like a huge thing, with a lot on the line,” Lewis said. “But I was honestly really excited. I did a lot of practice beforehand.”
Lewis sailed through the regional competition, held in June via Zoom due to COVID-19, cooking her heart out at the MCC Culinary Arts Institute in downtown Flint.
That qualified her for nationals, where she competed virtually from the house she shares with parents Tina and Kirk Lewis, and brother Tucker, 13. Lewis prepared mozzarella stuffed chicken bites with marinara sauce on the side as an appetizer, and lemon-herbed chicken breast, asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes as the main course.
The format of the national contest, Aug. 16-17, was tweaked to accommodate a virtual event.
“The new format included a knife skills competition on the first day, and the culinary competition on the second day, with the students preparing the same dish that was prepared at the regionals,” Cooper said. “As I watched Kylie online, I was very proud of her confidence, sanitation and culinary skills.”
Also watching her former student compete in the nationals was OHS Culinary Arts Chef Hannah Poyner.
“I was so excited to watch her,” Poyner said. “Kylie had more focus, more attention to detail and more cleanliness than anyone else. I thought, ‘There’s no way she’s not winning this.’ Her technique was spot-on. She makes me feel proud.”
Lewis had come a long way from when she joined the OHS culinary arts program in her sophomore year.
“The first year, she was timid and quiet and scared of raw chicken, like an unblossomed flower,” Poyner said.
Then Lewis earned the position of the OHS program’s sous chef by going through a rigorous process known as “sous chef boot camp,” where she bloomed.
“I remember when (during boot camp) Kylie was required to cut up a chicken and cut herself. Without blinking an eye, she took care of the cut, sanitized herself and finished in first place.”
By her senior year, Lewis was the program’s “chef de cuisine,” a title created just for her. She also managed the culinary arts sous chef program, which included organizing a cooking demonstration at the Shiawassee District Library in Corunna.
“I just really loved having an outlet to be artistic, (including) how the dish is presented,” Lewis said of why she dove so deeply into the program. “Making food for people made me joy.”
Lewis said her dream job is to work some day as a chef or sous chef in a high-end restaurant. She’s already racked up experience, serving as the sous chef at D’Mar Banquet and Conference Center in Owosso Township and currently working in the pantry at the Wrought Iron Grill in Owosso.
She plans to complete her associate’s degree in business and culinary arts programs at Mott and then use her scholarship to earn a bachelor’s degree at the Culinary Arts Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
“It’s a dream come true,” Lewis said. “The stars are aligning.”
A lifelong Owosso resident, when she’s not cooking Lewis said she enjoys sewing, drawing and painting, designing and making tattoos, skateboarding and camping.
To keep fit for kitchen work, which can be physically strenuous, she works out at a local gym five days a week. While in school, she played golf and volleyball.
Lewis said Poyner inspired her to enter a field that is still dominated by men.
“She told us the culinary field is not for the faint of heart,” Lewis said. “It gets tough, especially being one of the few women in the field. I have set my mind to it. I’m going to do this. I want to keep making her proud.”
ACT-SO is a yearlong achievement program designed to recruit, stimulate, and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students. The program hosts more than 32 competitions in STEM, humanities, business and performing arts nationwide, including local, regional and national level competitions. The culinary arts program is the only portion of the program open to non-African-American participants.