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Lee County Schools debuts Top Chef Scholarship Challenge

May 15, 2019
By MELISSA BILL ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The School District of Lee County presented the inaugural Top Chef Scholarship Challenge on Lee Schools TV. The 25-minute program featured three East Lee County High School Culinary Academy Seniors competing for $2,500 in scholarships.

The Top Chef Scholarship Challenge began in September among the Culinary Academy Students at East Lee County High School. Three students made it to the finals.

Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce President Ed Moore presented the winners with their scholarship checks.

According to Moore, the chamber created an Education Scholarship Fund a few years ago and has formerly awarded students through an essay competition.

"This past year, serving as the chairman of the board, we had a strong emphasis on joining the local businesses with the School District. During that time, I learned that East Lee County High School had a beautiful culinary department. That got my wheels turning and the chamber presented the admin of the school with the idea of having a Top Chef Scholarship Competition. They were all in," Moore said.

During the 90-minute cooking competition, the three contestants were given a predetermined menu to work from 24-hours in advance. Upon completing their entrees and dessert, the panel of judges then got a chance to try their food and make their decisions.

"Each contestant received a list of eight mandatory ingredients last night and then submitted their menu ideas to me," said Culinary Academy teacher Chef Arthur Phillips. "They were required to make an entre and a dessert with only 90 minutes in the kitchen. They all did extremely well."

During the taping of the show, the competitor's families and other culinary class members were there to cheer them on and help with the show's set-up and breakdown.

After careful deliberation, the judges picked Caricia Rodriguez as Lee County School's Top Chef and awarded her with a $1,250 scholarship. She is currently a senior at East whose goal is to attend Florida Gulf Coast University to major in Hospitality Management and one day open her own restaurant.

Virginia Reyes won second place and received a $750 scholarship check. She is also a senior with three years' experience in the Culinary Academy and plans to pursue a career as a pastry chef.

Tori McNear took home third place and a $500 scholarship check. McNear is a senior who plans to major in management and minor in a culinary to become a catering coordinator and work in marketing with the catering business.

"Healthy Harvest Community Farms played an integral role in making the competition possible," Moore said. "I reached out to see if they could be a Platinum Sponsor and supply all of the food. This was a natural fit since Healthy Harvest is working with East Lee County High's Agricultural Department. Healthy Harvest Community Farms didn't flinch and were thrilled to be involved. They supplied all of the food for the contestants during the competition."

According to Rob Spicker, Lee County Schools spokesperson, the culinary academy at East is one of the only in the county.

"Besides culinary, we offer close to 40 various academies ranging from everything from accounting to becoming a certified drone pilot. We spread the academies out so that students have a variety of things to choose from during school choice," Spicker said.

Moore added that the chamber and school administration will continue to team up in the future.

"We hope to do more scholarships like this in the future and have put our thinking caps on to expand to other departments next year," Moore said.

The Top Chef Scholarship Challenge made its debut on Friday, May 10, at 8 p.m. on the Lee Schools TV YouTube page at and the School District's Facebook page at



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