JWU Student Amanda Gray Wins Gold at SkillsUSA

You can’t win if you don’t try. That’s what JWU Baking & Pastry Arts and Food & Beverage Industry Management major Amanda Gray, a junior from Wantagh, N.Y., learned last month when she took collegiate division first-place win in SkillsUSA’s 2021 National Skills & Leadership Conference.

Every year, SkillsUSA convenes a National Leadership and Skills Conference, drawing together both college and high school competitors across the nation to flex their skills in everything from practical nursing to advertising design to crime scene investigation to architectural drafting to robotics to web design. In 2019, 10 JWU students competed at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference, and seven Wildcats placed in the Top 10. This year, Gray's Gold Medal win marks the very first time she competed at the national level.

Gray's Start in SkillsUSA

Gray has been involved with SkillsUSA since her senior year of high school in 2019, turning her interest in cooking and baking into competing as a high school senior. Gray won first place when she first competed in a Long Island Regional Competition for Commercial Baking, then qualified for the New York State Level Competition, where her chef had encouraged her to enter a Cake Decorating competition. Although Gray loved the experience of designing and preparing an elaborate three-tier cake, she couldn’t progress on a national level because the competition had been state-only. But Gray had gotten a taste for competing with other skilled students, and she was hungry for more. “All of this definitely helped me get my foot in the door at SkillsUSA, and I set a goal for myself of one day making it to nationals,” she says. “I had planned on competing again last year at JWU, but the contest was cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, this year I was able to compete in the Rhode Island State Competition and won that, which allowed me to advance to nationals.”

Facing Tough Requirements

SkillsUSA’s Commercial Baking competition was intense. Gray and the other contestants had to compare seven different products, film the entire process on two different cameras at two different angles, photograph their products and complete a written baking exam online – with everything but the written exam completed in a professional kitchen, meaning Gray needed to travel to JWU to prepare and film everything. “I worked with Chef Christina Harvey and Chef Mark Harvey, and we spent three days practicing, producing, and filming,” says Gray. “There were a lot of requirements that the judges wanted to see, such as a full pan of your uniform, the time at each point in the process, proper sanitation procedures, and every single step of producing the items. We had to be sure to show the scaled ingredients, the mixing of the actual dough, placing and removing the products in the oven, and cutting open the final products for evaluation.” closeup photo of chocolate chip cookies on a tray against a ruler

The products contestants had to make included three different shaped bread loaves, cream puffs and eclairs, chocolate chip cookies, corn muffins, a decorated cake, pastry cream, and a display of knife cuts. Cakes have always been Gray’s favorite thing to make and she bakes them constantly at home, but even as a well-rounded baker she wanted to make sure she was practicing baking everything else – bread being the trickiest for her. “Chef Mark Harvey and I worked on a lot of practice batches before filming, and I’m happy with the way my final breads turned out,” Gray says.

Meeting a Challenge with Support 

Although it was strange to compete remotely during the pandemic, Gray had one benefit: “I was able to produce everything in a JWU kitchen, which I was already comfortable working in. I know from my past competitions that one of the struggles is figuring out where everything is located in the venue.” It was also beneficial to be the only one working in the kitchen, having space to herself and the ability to spread the work across a few days. However, Gray was still a bit unnerved by the experience, used to people competing at the same time and being able to see what everyone else was doing; Gray didn’t even know how many other people were competing in the contest, let alone who they were or how they were doing on each step. “It felt more like a competition against myself, rather than against a group of fellow bakers,” Gray says.

This year’s national competition had multiple additional requirements in terms of time, facilities, equipment and technology that may have served as obstacles to some competitors. The judges had no contact with competitors aside from providing the list of requirements, evaluating performances based on the photos and videos submitted by contestants. Gray was surprised by how much work went into setting everything up for the cameras and filming it – more than the work in producing the baked goods. “We had to make sure to gather all of the equipment and ingredients ahead of time, make sure everything was in the frame, and capture every single step of the process,” she says. But at least she was able to entertain her supportive family; when she parents came by to watch some of the filming, they said it was like watching behind the scenes of a television cooking show.

A collage showing Amanda decorating a cake, a closeup of rolls on a tray, and Amanda in her chef whites

Held virtually via Zoom, the 2021 SkillsUSA Nationals awards ceremony lacked the same effect as an in-person event, instead flashing each winner’s name and video on the main screen when announced. However, Gray was able to watch and participate with her family, and she isn’t letting the missed opportunity to get up on stage with other champions or network with chefs and fellow competitors diminish her win. “I’m honestly still shocked that I won!,” she says. “It definitely is a big confidence booster and it’s something I’ll carry with me throughout the rest of my career. I always say that the win isn’t just mine, I couldn’t have gotten here without all of the help and support I’ve gotten from my family and all of my chefs throughout the years.”

Considering Competing? 

When it comes to advising future SkillsUSA Nationals competitors, Gray’s advice is simple: just get started. “If you’re at all interested in competing, even if you think it will make you nervous, I definitely recommend trying it,” says Gray. “I wasn’t sure I would be able to take the pressure at first, but I’ve definitely improved with that through time. It can be scary to put yourself out there and be watched by your mentors, peers, and family. Sometimes it feels like there’s a hundred eyes on you, just waiting to see something go wrong, but you have to trust yourself and believe that your work is good enough, and you’re good enough.”

“Focus on what you’re doing and let everything else fade away,” Gray continues. “Whether it’s a goal you set for yourself, or even just a way to have fun and gain experience, competing is something I’d definitely recommend, and JWU is a great place to do it.”

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