Source: YouTube

A total of seven Joliet Junior College students represented the nation’s first community college at two separate national competitions recently. Hosted by nationally recognized professional organizations, these competitions test students skills against peers from across the country.

Six culinary students competed at the American Culinary Federation’s national student competition and returned to JJC with impressive hardware. First year student Caitlyn Drzyzga placed first at the contest, earning the title ‘Student Chef of the Year.’ The student competition team earned fourth place, also earning a bronze overall medal and Best in Show for entrée and dessert. Hear their thoughts on the experience in their own words.

JJC automotive alumnus Nathan Bulthuis won the gold medal in automotive service technology at the 2023 SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference earlier this summer. Bulthuis was the Illinois state gold medalist and competed nationally as one of 31 competitors from across the country seeking the national title.

JJC press release below:


Congratulations are in order for six Joliet Junior College (JJC) culinary students who performed exceptionally at the American Culinary Federation student competition.

First year culinary student Caitlyn Drzyzga placed first at the contest, earning the title Student Chef of the Year.

“It was a shock to win,” said Drzyzga. “You compete hoping to do your best and maybe win, but I definitely was not expecting it. I spent a lot of time practicing and the competition itself was really challenging. I felt good about how everything turned out, but it was a shock to receive first for sure.”

Drzyzga was just completing her first year as a culinary student at JJC when she placed third overall in the regional qualifying competition in March. She continued to practice during the summer in preparation for the national competition.

“All of these students demonstrate an exceptional amount of skill, promise and dedication to this field,” said Chef Paul Bringas, culinary instructor and head competition coach. “They all worked really hard to hone those skills during practice and each performed exceptionally during the competition.”

The student competition team Captain Noah Hook (Aurora), Anthony Bozue (Plainfield), Taylor Washington (Joliet), Rick Nava (Cicero) and Olivia Valentino (Minooka) placed fourth in the team competition, also earning a bronze overall medal and Best in Show for entrée and dessert.

The student team was also coached by Bringas and assistant coach, Chef Alexis Ramos. The team placed second at the regional qualifier in March and had the additional challenge of working as a group to meet the national competition’s complex requirements.

“It was a great competition overall and we definitely left it all out there as a team,” said Noah Hook, student team captain. “We each set aside our own personalities and came together as one unit instead of individuals.”

“Competing at this level is not for the faint of heart,” said Chef Mike McGreal, culinary department chair. “Competing at this level for a national title is something most individuals cannot accomplish, and I don’t mean students. There are a lot of professional chefs who cannot achieve what these students did. So, for our students to perform at this level is really very significant and it speaks to the quality of the program at JJC, the professors and the students we teach.”

Preparing for the national competition required students and coaches to spend many extra hours in the kitchen outside of normal class hours and over the summer break. Both Drzyzga and the student team were required to prepare signature dishes and incorporate specific elements inspired by the competition’s location and season.

Joliet Junior College previously won national ACF titles for team and individual performances in 2010 and 2014.


Student Chef of the Year Menu

Amuse Bouche: seafood andouille strudel, citrus fennel salad, remoulade
Main Course: Pan seared duck breast, duck sausage, orange port jus, creole potato cylinder, port glazed carrot, roasted Romanesco, Romanesco puree

JJC Student Competition Team Fourth Place Overall Menu
Appetizer: Herb crusted rack of dover sole, creole shrimp and scallop mousseline, basil-potato puree, crawfish etouffee, maque choux, candied lemon, marinated tomato, lemon salted potato

Salad: Mixed greens, shaved fennel, celery, main lobster poached in lemongrass-vanilla butter, cucumber, pickled mago and lobster cornet with honey goat cheese, lobster butter hollandaise, orange, shaved radish, squid ink cracker, pistachio-hazelnut crunch, mango-lime vinaigrette

Entrée: Herb crusted citrus pork loin, spiced pork mousseline, parmesan and black truffle polenta, braised kale, caramelized carrot cream, glazed pearl onions, brandy mustard jus, Cajun style garlic sausage, with jalapeno and cheddar, sautéed broccolini

Dessert: lemon tart dough, pineapple curd, hazelnut crunch, coconut sponge cake, lime cream cheese mousse, coconut crème anglaise, run caramel sauce, lime mint gel, brulee pineapple, passion fruit sorbet