In high school, as in life, there are winners and losers.
During the last few years at Shawnee Mission North High School, Sammy Jo Claussen wasn’t exactly on the “winner” track. Dyslexic and bipolar with anger issues and attention deficit disorder, the temperamental teen kept to herself. Able to read at only a fourth-grade level, she was teased by classmates and dismissed as dumb. When she wasn’t acting up in school, she was arguing at home, where serious issues threatened to rip her family apart.
The writing seemed to be on the wall.
“Gimme an L.”
Funny thing about Claussen, though. She had an ace up her sleeve that would soon trump all of her troubles.
She could cook.
And she played that card earlier this year at a prestigious culinary competition. Drawing on more than 15 years of hands-on experience with her grandmother — and pushed by talented teachers — she outcooked hundreds of young chefs from around the country en route to winning a $90,000 full-ride college scholarship. And the title of “Best Teen Chef.”
By preparing delicious dishes with her head and her heart, she showed something to the world. And she turned her life around. Now, as she throws half a red onion and quartered zucchini on the grill at her culinary school, she can’t stop smiling.
Look who just won. The girl with the problems, the one from the wrong side of the tracks, the brassy, moody, blunt-as-a-broom-handle 5-foot-1-inch blonde with the diamond-chip nose stud and five black tattoos. The chef who reads her cookbooks upside down.
She revels in the unlikeliness of it all.
Ha! Stereotype that, dude.
Against all odds, Claussen, 19, is now studying at the culinary school at the Art Institutes International-Kansas City, a two-story red brick specialty arts college that opened in Lenexa in October 2008.
She can’t believe it.
“One of my classes is $423 an hour!” she said with wide eyes. “When you come here, you want to pay attention to everything and make sure you’re listening and getting good grades.”
That wasn’t always easy for her. Nothing was easy.
“People, when they find out I’m dyslexic, they think I’m retarded,” she said. “Well, I’m not. It’s just that I learn at a really slow pace. I used to get made fun of when I was in high school. With my ADD and ADHD people would see me sitting in class not paying attention, and I’d be twitching and stuff. And that’s when my bipolar came out cause people would make fun of me, and I’d get really mad and just want to knock them out.”
She never did. Since then, medication has helped keep her temper in check and even out her moods.
Cooking always did that, too.
She cooked for her family, encouraging her mother to try new foods, and cooked for her friends. Even if she just made macaroni and cheese, they thought it was a gourmet meal.
She started cooking with her grandmother, Kay DeMott, in LaCygne, Kan., helping to make homemade meals. Food was a savior, the kitchen a refuge. So when problems hit in high school, that’s again where she turned.
She began spending part of her days at Broadmoor Technical Center in the Shawnee Mission School District for culinary instruction. It was there she found satisfaction, and a home. Teachers, including chef Bob Brassard, helped her hone her skills and encouraged her to enter contests. She entered the Best Teen Chef contest, sponsored by the Art Institutes International. One of the requirements: Submit an original recipe.
Steve Venne (pronounced vein), the chef director at the Art Institutes International-Kansas City, still remembers it.
“Her recipe looked good,” he said. “She had done a complete meal, where the requirement was only to submit a signature dish. But she had gone above and beyond.”
“I did a Houston Pork Tenderloin with orange sauce, mushrooms, green beans and my famous garlic mashed potatoes,” a beaming Claussen said. “And there was a peach salad.”
The recipe was unusual.
“I wanted to push myself, so I did something I normally don’t eat,” she said. “I don’t like pork. I don’t even like bacon. Ew.”
Her gamble paid off. She soon got the news that she had been selected for the regional competition.
Winning the national competition was almost too much to imagine. She couldn’t help thinking what it could mean. She dreamed of attending the culinary school in Lenexa, although she knew her family couldn’t afford it. But if she could just win the regional competition, she thought, at least she could contribute a couple thousand dollars to the cause.
She also had another motivation.
After causing so many problems, she wanted to make her mother proud.
Except there was a problem. A week before the contest in March, the right-handed Claussen broke her right wrist while bowling.
A weaker person might have become discouraged or dropped out. Not Claussen. She had stared down problems all her life. What was one more?
As the doctor set her arm, she set her jaw.
So she’d have to compete with a broken arm.
Bring it on.
The knife skills competition would be first. She’d have to chop and julienne, slice a mushroom, small dice an onion. Chefs are taught to dice with a quick rocking wrist action against the cutting board. Claussen couldn’t move her wrist and instead had to learn to do it stiffly, like she was shaking hands. And that was just the preparation.
Judges waited to taste the food. They included John McClure, chef-owner of Starker’s, and Karen Watts, corporate chef of Roth Distributing in Lenexa. All contestants had to make a shrimp cocktail, a chicken breast with a creative sauce, rice pilaf and broccoli.
Claussen swallowed hard.
“I’m like, people are going to see me and think I’m going to be an easy target to beat,” she said. “But I was like, ‘I’m not going to go down like that.’ If I get second, I’ll be happy. But I’m going to go for first!”
And, cast and all, that’s what she got — by a single point.
“It was very close,” Venne said. “It was flavor that made the difference.”
“I think it was my mushroom sauce,” Claussen said. “That chick loved it! She kept coming back and eating it. I can’t remember her name ... Karen. My bad.”
While she was happy with the victory, she had bigger goals. With two months to the national competition in Charlotte, N.C., she began practicing with Venne.
Through long days he pushed her to work hard and get better. He worked with her on time management and organizational skills and helped her resolve a maddening curdling problem with the oyster stew she would make in Charlotte.
When she got to the competition, she saw more than 40 teens from New York to Los Angeles laughing and having fun. She didn’t join them.
“People thought I was kind of snotty,” she said.
She wasn’t there to laugh or make friends. This was too important. This was make it or break it. This was her one chance, her one shot to turn around a life too often headed the wrong way. And win or lose, she was going to give it everything she had.
And then it was time.
Claussen began to cook. Using everything she had learned, she pan-fried catfish, made her oyster stew, a poached-egg salad, green beans with mushrooms with a mak shu sauce and a sweet potato ginger cake. She sweated every detail, taking extra care to wring out as much flavor as she could, and present a pretty, precise and professional plate.
When she was done, she sat with the contestants, waiting for the results, trying not to chew off all of her fingernails. It was Mother’s Day weekend.
They announced winners, from 10th place to second. And every time they said a name that wasn’t hers she thought, “I am so sorry, Mom.”
One by one they called names of contestants that left her scratching her head.
“I’m like, ‘How did that kid beat me, because he burned his green onions and his red onions, and it was gross!’ I saw him walk up, and I’m like, ‘My name’s got to be in here somewhere!’ ”
“Third place, not me. Second place, not me.”
She put her head down.
“I didn’t want to look up anymore,” she said. “I was tired, and they were filming, and I didn’t want to be on camera crying. Then they started talking about how this next person dominated the whole competition. This was the first time someone has ever dominated the competition.”
She slumped in her seat.
“I was like, ‘Can we just go and find out who the winner is, so if it’s not me I can go home?’ ”
Just then, they did.
“And you just hear my mom in a dead-silent room go, ‘Whewwwwwwww!’ ” Claussen said.
“I look up at her, and I’m like, ‘Why is she yelling?’ And then I look back at the judges, and they’re all trying to get (my attention). And I’m like ‘Oh ...OH!
Suddenly her problems didn’t matter. She hurried to the front of the room. Everyone applauded. A judge shook her hand. As he did, he pulled her close.
everyone,” he said.
Claussen smiled as she accepted her gold trophy.
And now the verdict is in on high school, as it is in life. Her trophy says it all.
Sammy Jo Claussen. Winner.
This is Sammy Jo Claussen’s recipe for a quick potato dish.
Makes 4 servings
8 Idaho potatoes
1/2 medium yellow onion
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons seasoned salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons parsley
(Season to taste)
Peel potatoes, cut to medium dice. Cut onion into small dice. Place half of the potatoes and other ingredients into a microwavable glass bowl. Repeat.
Cover tightly with cling wrap. Place bowl into microwave and cook for 15 minutes. Carefully remove cling wrap, stir thoroughly, then replace cling wrap and cook for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Carefully remove cling wrap and serve.Per serving: 384 calories (40 percent from fat), 18 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 52 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 2,245 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.