Cardozo Senior Is Top Teen Chef

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For Maria Bonilla, happiness is a kitchen full of wonderful smells. To relax, she'll scour cupboards and concoct a simple dish but put her own twist on it -- such as homemade chicken fingers, the one food the 18-year-old says she cannot live without. "Once I made some and wrapped bacon around," she says. "They were soooooo good."

Such improvisational skills helped the Cardozo Senior High School senior recently win the Art Institute of Washington's Best Teen Chef contest. By creating a dish she named Chris Brown Chicken after her favorite R&B vocalist, she won $23,000 to attend the institute's culinary school after graduation. That's about half the cost of tuition for an associate's degree.

Bonilla, who lives in the District, was one of 23 teenagers who vied to enter the contest by proposing an original three-course meal -- recipes and photos included. Institute chefs liked Bonilla's seared salmon with hollandaise sauce and invited her to the six-teen cook-off in the school's Rosslyn kitchen.

Contestants were given identical ingredients and told to create an entree pronto -- no books, recipes or help. Bonilla sauteed two boneless chicken breasts; added vinaigrette, white wine, onions, tomatoes and peppers; and baked for about 13 minutes. (Sorry, she didn't measure amounts.)

Having taken the local title, she will represent the Washington area in Dallas on May 5 at the national teen contest, competing against the 22 top-prize winners at other Art Institute locations. They'll vie for nearly $250,000 in scholarships.

Bonilla, whose father, Jose, cooks for Ridgewells catering, says she'll spend the next three weeks preparing the menu every national contestant must make for the judges: tortilla soup, a starburst grapefruit salad and roast pork medallions.

Meanwhile, she has a more immediate challenge: finding time to bake a unique cake for sister Yesica's 21st birthday April 24. "She wants all pink or all chocolate," Bonilla says. "But I might try a chocolate-and-strawberry one."

-- Sue Kovach Shuman

© 2007 The Washington Post Company