Douglas senior heads to national culinary arts competition
Douglas High School student Diego Solis brought home the gold medal in Culinary Arts from the recent Nevada Association of SkillsUSA State Leadership and Skills Conference, held in Reno last month. Solis’ state level win earns him a place at the table during the SkillsUSA 55th Annual National Leadership and Skills Conference, scheduled from June 24-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.
There, he will be joined by more than 5,000 other student competitors from across the nation, including representatives from the U.S Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, who will compete in their chosen field among 102 categories spanning 11 different professional areas, or “sectors.”
SkillsUSA (www.skillsusa.org) is “a national organization serving teachers and high school and college students who are preparing for careers in technical, skilled and service occupations.” Emphasis is placed on building “personal, workplace, and technical skills grounded in academics.”
Solis’ journey into the culinary arts began his freshman year of high school.
“I weighed 270 pounds,” he said. “Working out wasn’t working. I was feeding myself whatever was there, and I knew I needed to find another route toward healthier eating.”
Solis first prepared eggs in the morning in order to “start the day off right.” This soon led to making dinner after he returned home from school each day.
“I got into it and realized pretty quickly that this is my niche. I couldn’t stop investing my time into exploring healthier cooking options; looking for ways to make things taste good with a mindfulness toward health.”
Solis enrolled in culinary classes at DHS the following year and found a mentor in his teacher, Kerry Stack.
Recalling that first Culinary Arts class, Solis said, “I was quiet and shy. I wanted to make sure I went in with an intention to do what I love, and I wanted to express myself through my cooking and my skill sets.”
Solis flourished in the class, and Stack took note of his natural affinity in the kitchen. She encouraged him to enter the statewide culinary arts competition through the Nevada Association of SkillsUSA, but Solis opted to hold off on competing until his junior year and used that time to further hone his talent.
In 2018, Solis competed in both culinary arts (Hospitality and Tourism sector), and job interview skills (Leadership sector) at the NV SkillsUSA state conference. He won gold in the job interview category and traveled to the SkillsUSA NLSC in Kentucky last summer. Though he did not advance past the preliminary round at last year’s national event, Solis was not deterred and used the experience as an opportunity to further educate himself. He watched the national culinary arts competition finals “to get a feel for what it would be like if I won the next year.”
“Traveling to Kentucky was amazing,” said Solis. “It was definitely a new experience for me and I got to dip my hands in [to that level of competition]. Winning [the NV Association of SkillsUSA job interview event] was cool…[but] I’m much more invested in the culinary aspect.”
At the national level, culinary arts competitors are required to execute 2 chicken dishes (one sautéed and one braised), each with an accompanying vegetable and starch; a soup comprised of vegetables and homemade stock from a chicken they deconstruct themselves; and a complementary salad. They are also judged on their ability to demonstrate six different knife cuts; including chiffonade, julienne, and concasse methods; and how those skills translate throughout their prepared dishes.
“The competition hasn’t left my mind since I stepped out of the kitchen last year,” Solis said. “I haven’t stopped thinking about what I want to prepare; I have so many ideas.”
Despite his innumerable hours of planning, Solis understands the importance of flexibility and spontaneity within the spirited nature of competition. “Sometimes it comes down to the heat of the moment and what I think will taste good that day,” he said.
The night before the 2019 NV Association of SkillsUSA statewide competition last month, Solis stayed up until one in the morning to ensure every aspect of his culinary entry was perfected. He explained that in order to feel adequately prepared, “I need to have three backup plans for every dish.”
He also drew upon his experience as a DHS football captain as part of his event preparation.
“I felt confident going into the competition; I knew what I was supposed to do and [what was needed] to go in and do it.”
For his entry, Solis prepared chicken roulade with prosciutto and Swiss cheese accompanied by piped potato puree and glazed carrots; a salad of field greens, sliced pears, and radishes with a dijon-balsamic vinaigrette; and a dessert of cranberry-orange bread pudding garnished with orange peel and fresh mint.
As winners were announced during the statewide awards ceremony, Solis found himself overwhelmed with emotion. “They called my name [for first place] and I couldn’t keep it together. I was just so happy that all the hard work paid off and that I could hopefully make a name for Douglas County; to let [members of my community] know that I did something for them…for my teacher. It was very euphoric, very surreal, and very emotional for me,” he said.
As he readies himself for the upcoming SkillsUSA NLSC in June, Solis is reflective on how he’s arrived at this place.
He credits his parents, Jennifer Smith and Alberto Solis, for their unwavering support as he’s pursued his path into the culinary arts.
“My parents have always encouraged me to find what I love to do and do it. I give them a lot of appreciation for that. There are those who want their kids to follow a certain path, but they always wanted me to find myself. They knew if I did so, I’d find my true passion.”
Asked about his teacher and mentor, Mrs. Stack, Solis becomes visibly emotional.
“I’ve never been more grateful for someone than for her,” he said. “Every step I took since my sophomore year, she’s always been there. I knew that if I fell back, she’d be right there, ready to push me back up. It’s a natural and unique connection; we just clicked so quickly.”
Ultimately, Solis knows that his greatest source of inspiration must come from within.
“I’ve always tried to be self-inspired because I know that if you don’t have a fire within you, you can’t catch another fire and take it for yourself…other people motivate me, but I feel like inspiration is a whole other step; I’m very self-leading in that way.”
In addition to his studies, playing sports, and preparing for national competition, Solis runs a personal chef business called, “Chef’s Devoir,” which is French for “Chef’s Duty.”
“My sole purpose in starting the business was connecting people to food. When families come home at the end of the day, they sit at a table…they are eating and talking about their day. Food brings people together and you can express a lot through food. I care about that so much. It’s everything, I believe.”
He also works part-time at Sierra Chef in Genoa, leading culinary classes, running the storefront, and assisting with special events and food production.
Solis has already enlisted in the U.S. Army and aspires to earn a spot on the Army’s Joint Culinary Center of Excellence Culinary Arts Team. His dream is to one day own a restaurant “that expresses me and my legacy; to be able to establish something and say, ‘It’s mine’ and have something that people can appreciate.”
Solis is compelled by the pursuit of excellence. “I want to be seen as someone who is willing to do anything and everything to change myself or something else in a better way,” he said.
Although grant funds will help cover some expenses associated with the trip to Louisville, Solis recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to further assist with travel costs and competition fees. Information about the fundraising effort can be found online at gofundme.com/f/culinary-arts-competition-for-skills-usa.