JACKSON TWP. Recent Jackson High School graduate Kayla Gambrel has always strived for perfection when she is creating a culinary masterpiece. She achieved that in April by taking home first place and the gold medal at the the Family Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) State Competition in baking and pastry in Columbus

“I’ve always leaned toward baking because of the technical side of it and that it has to be perfect," Gambrel said. "I also like the creative and presentation sides of baking, which are my favorite parts of baking. I feel that you eat with your eyes first.

FCCLA is a non-profit national career and technical student organization for students in Family and Consumer Sciences education programs in public and private K-12 schools. The annual competition involves students coming together in a 60-minute competition to make a dessert and pastry tray to feed four people.

Most of the competitors made three desserts but Gambrel made four different types totaling 16 desserts on her tray. Each student has to have a theme for their baking and Gambrel selected Seasons Greetings.

Her four desserts included peppermint white chocolate macarons (winter), pumpkin mousse filled cream puffs (fall), strawberry shortcake shooters (summer) and lemon scented angel food cake with lemon curd (spring.)

She earned a 93.1 out of 100 at regional competitions in February and won a gold medal at the state competition in April. When she went to the awards ceremony in Columbus, she found out she had won the first-place spot. She did win a scholarship but doesn’t know the amount yet.

Gambrel is planning to attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

“I looked at other culinary programs and even toured the Culinary Institute or America in New York but I wanted a school that had a sports program and cheerleading. I’ve been looking at Johnson & Wales for a few years and I think it will be a good fit for me,” Gambrel said. “It’s one of the only culinary schools that offers a bachelor’s degree in field and it’s paired with hotel management.”

Gambrel already knows what she wants for a career path and is hoping to work in the high-end pastries at a hotel or casino.

“Working at a casino in Las Vegas or one of the big resorts in Florida would be cool. I love to make food elaborate and pretty and pair different flavors together I just really love the creativity in the presentation in baking. You can take any recipe from a magazine or from one of the television baking shows and make it your own,” Gambrel said. 

By the way, her favorite television baker is Duff Goldman. The 60-minute competition included an introduction to the judges, baking, presentation and cleaning up the work area. There 14 judges walking around the kitchen stations and asking each of the bakers questions about what they were doing. Gambrel said it was exactly the way is shown on TV shows like Cupcake Wars.

Jackson Local Schools culinary program teacher Stephanie Kunkel was thrilled to have her first student win first place and wrote, “Kayla is a very driven student that had a desire to win, she has a burning passion for baking and pastry that I have never seen before in a high school student.

“I am very proud of her and hope to see her move on in her education and do great things. The judges all agreed that they would love to see her on TV someday. I think she won first place at States because she is passionate and was organized and meticulous with her four recipes. I think her preparation starting the summer before her senior year helped her refine her recipes and her processes so that she had it down to the minute when it came time to compete in February at Regionals and then for States in April. She knew what she had to do, and she executed it perfectly,”

Kunkel said she was so pleased that Gambrel won that she cried with Gambrel’s mother and grandmother when they announced she had won in Columbus. 

“Two years of preparation on Kayla's behalf and her not being afraid to ask questions and change things about her pastry tray made her the top competitor in the state of Ohio.

Other students that competed at the state level only made two or three desserts in the 60 minutes; while Kayla wowed the judges by completing four.  Everyone was skeptical that she would finish in time and that everything would taste great and look pretty, but she did it with ease,” Kunkel wrote.

Gambrel said she started baking at a age four with her grandmother who made many Italian patries such as cannoli’s and clothes pins. The two would watch baking shows together on TV every night before bedtime.

Gambrel said she felt confident going into he competition but felt some pressure when the judges called 60 seconds and she still hadn’t cleaned up her work space. She attributes  her teacher at Jackson Local Schools to helping her win first place.

“I appreciate all the help from my teacher Stephanie Kunkel. She is so interactive in the classroom and I couldn’t have done the competition without her. She helped me with plating and all the behind the scenes work. Winning was all thanks to her,” Gambrel said.