Top Chef Santa. See the cleaver in his hand?

Edible centerpieces are 3-D works of artistic skill that can showcase an event’s theme, decorate a simply clad table, or in the case of the Orange County (FL) public high school and vocational tech students, it can be the recognition that their creativity, knife cuts, and timed artworks merited their focused concentration.

I’ve lost track of how many years I have had the privilege to judge Orange County (FL) Public School’s Annual Hospitality and Culinary Competition, hosted each December at the Orlando World Center Marriott, but I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for what each

IMG_4003 hedge of fruity flowers

Look how this was built onto a slice of watermelon!

of the students and teams produce, the scholarships and awards earned, or for the dedicated staff and sponsors who make it all possible. For the students in the ProStart and Orange Technical College dual enrollment programs, this is their opportunity to participate in chef demonstrations, case studies and the chance to hear about educational opportunities and careers in culinary arts/hospitality and tourism industries.

Sponsors of this year’s prestigious event include Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Johnson & Wales University, Keiser University, NAF Academy of Hospitality & Tourism Advisory Board, and the UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

I was bowled over with the cute turtle and the balance of colors.

I usually wait each year to write this blog in order to receive a press release detailing the winning students and their respective schools for each of the culinary and hospitality competitions, but there was something so special about this year’s level of energy and craftsmanship that I just couldn’t wait to share photos of some of my favorite entries in the Edible Centerpieces category.

There were many more students and schools entered to compete. Typically, the Marriott’s kitchen crew provides a multi-option buffet lunch post-competition in the same room of the contests. This year we had to move to another ballroom to accommodate the vast numbers. Each category had more entrants than the year before, a testament to the culinary programs and their instructors. Maybe the plethora of television cooking shows has spurred the growth, much like “Dancing With The Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” have inspired dancing.

An intricate arrangement of shapes and colors to form this “fruit” basket.

I didn’t have time to watch any of the other competitions, but I can tell you that in Edible Centerpieces, I saw significant progress in the skills necessary to plan and produce a centerpiece (following the explicit rules) within their allotted hour. I saw intense focus, determination and steadfastness. I shared judging duties in this category with Shirley Stamper (John and Shirley’s Catering) and Chef James Routhier (Orlando World Marriott Center).

Look at the fine detailing of the leaves on top of this watermelon!

The yearly competition always needs volunteers. The types of jobs needed to run that program are as diverse as the plated appetizers, entrees and desserts displayed for viewing. Contact Shannon Latimer, MBA, District Coordinator, NAF Career and Technical Education, Orange County Public Schools; 407-317-3200, ext. 200-2024;

All photos by Karen Kuzsel.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2016 – 2017 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the second consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events.;; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.