TAMPA – Those who tune into “Emeril’s Florida” on television this week can expect to see some local faces.
Leto High School culinary arts students Guillermo Quezada and Michael Gordon and their teacher, Debra Hladky, appear in the first episode of the second season of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s show, which is all about the Sunshine State’s dining scene.
The episode, which aired Sunday and Monday, will air again 11:30 a.m. Thursday on the Cooking Channel.
Last March, Quezada, originally from the Dominican Republic, was deemed the Student Top Chef at the 13th annual Florida ProStart Culinary Competition. Leto’s four-person team won first place and went on to secure 11th place in the national competition.
Lagasse visited Leto in September to film the episode, “Coming to America.”
In addition to meeting the local students and highlighting the school’s culinary arts program, Lagasse showcases three chefs who moved to Florida from foreign countries and opened high-end restaurants.
“To have him be so gracious with the students on the show was just one of the best experiences of my professional career,” Hladky said.
During the segment, Quezada and Gordon demonstrated how to make the award-winning meal their team cooked during the competition – egg-yolk ravioli, pan-seared grouper on a bed of spinach and mushrooms, potato pancakes and chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. The students were not allowed to use an oven, just two burners on a stove, and they had one hour to finish the meal.
“It’s really tough,” Quezada said. “It’s the fastest hour I’ve ever experienced. Literally every second counts.”
The students were happy to hear their hard work paid off when they learned they would be getting a visit from Lagasse. “It was a great experience,” Quezada said. “He walked in like any regular Joe. That’s what I liked. He was very casual, very nice.”
There are currently 175 students in Leto’s culinary arts program, which Hladky has taught in since it started 10 years ago. She had worked as a chef for 16 years in fine dining restaurants in New York City and Long Island.
“We cover all the basics,” she said. “Safety and sanitation, knife skills, cooking methods. The main focus is to give them foundational skills to get them that first entry-level job.”
For Quezada and Gordon, seniors this year, the program proved to be training for a career. Both will attend the Culinary Institute of America next year.
Quezada, who moved to Florida from the Dominican Republic at age 6, became interested in cooking as he watched his sister learn from his mother growing up.
“How I was raised, the women are supposed to learn to cook and be taught by their mother,” he said. “But I got more interested than my sister. It really caught my attention.”
Gordon, 17, discovered his love of cooking when he joined Leto’s program as a sophomore.
On Monday, he had not seen the episode that features him yet, but he plans to this week.
“Emeril was a great guy,” he said. “It was awesome showing him what we could do as high-school students.”