Katie Barnes is a big deal at the Missoula College culinary arts program. Her cooking skills have earned her national recognition.
Those who know her say Barnes is, without doubt, going places in the industry. But just over two years ago her professional future was anything but certain.
Barnes was at the University of Montana, but wasn’t feeling particularly passionate about her studies.
"Originally, I was actually an anthropology major," she says. "I was in school for a couple of semesters and realized that it [anthropology] was more of an interest, didn’t really enjoy it."
Cooking, however, was another story.
"I always enjoyed cooking as a kid. I was very young when I started. I joined the [Missoula College] culinary program on a whim," she says.
Even though she wasn’t sure what her professional endgame was going to be, Barnes made a deal with herself.
"I’m going to join it and I’m going to finish it. I got into it and I realized it was a passion. I absolutely love cooking," she says. "I love doing it and being able to make customers happy."
Last spring, Barnes took home the gold in a national culinary competition.
The 23-year-old is now setting her sights on another big win: This time at the American Culinary Federation’s Student Chef of the Year competition.
"No pressure at all," she jokes.
Actually, Barnes is under immense pressure. Just ask Tom Campbell, one of her coaches and director of the Culinary Arts program at Missoula College.
Chef Campbell is a veteran of the culinary trade. This is how he describes anyone seriously considering a career in that industry.
"You have to be a little insane," he says.
Which means: Forget about the glamorous stuff you see on the Food Network.
"The glamour on television is not peel a 50-pound bag of potatoes as fast as you can," he explains. "It requires a lot of dedication."
And Campbell says Katie Barnes possesses that in spades.
"When she goes to Chicago, she’s going to be competing with students of her nature from all over the western part of this country," Campbell says. "She will be judged by certified master chefs and certified master pastry chefs. She will be rubbing elbows with top industry professionals in this country. To me, that speaks volumes about her commitment and dedication."
What’s more, Campbell says Barnes seems to thrive under pressure. That, he says, gives her real street cred in the culinary trade.
Missoula College culinary arts assistant professor and Certified Chef de Cuisine Aimee Elliot agrees, saying Barnes never hesitate to go the extra mile.
"So to be able to have that and the dedication to be here sometimes at 5:00 in the morning and on your breaks when students are normally out having fun and not worrying about studying, she’s here practicing and getting ready for the next event," Elliot says.
Barnes will compete against ten other semifinalists this Sunday in Illinois.
Her competitors are among the nation’s best young culinary prospects.
They’ve chosen to make either an entrée or dessert that incorporates a few pre-specified ingredients. Barnes won big with a pastry recipe in last year’s competition, so she figures, why mess with a good thing?
"For my first competition I chose dessert because it's more of a challenge for me," Barnes says. "You can make an entrée look elegant, but it’s nice to be able to add a little bit of flair and draw the eye more with a dessert."
The Texas-native will prepare a dessert for judges this Sunday incorporating three required ingredients: macadamia nuts, pineapple and banana.
"To me, when I hear all of those ingredients put together, I think of a light dessert; something super fruity you're gonna have on a beach somewhere," she says. "But since we’re going to Chicago in February – it’s going to be freezing, and it’s still winter, so we decided to go a little heavier with it."
With the Student Chef of the Year competition just around the corner, Barnes naturally doesn’t want to share too much about her contest entry.
"Well, I can tell a little bit about it," she says.
She confides that her dessert has a deep fried component.
"I like deep fried in the winter," she says. "To me it’s very homey, but at the same time you can make it very elegant. We have a chocolate component in it as well. We’re actually using blood orange, another ice cream and we’re also using fresh fruit."
After graduation Barnes says she’ll probably spend a couple of years in the catering business. But to get that true fine dining experience under her belt, she will eventually have to leave Montana. Culinary careers are made in the bigger metropolitan areas:
"I don’t want to leave Missoula," she says. "Missoula is my home. I absolutely adore Montana. We’ll end up back here eventually, down the road – when Missoula’s ready for some fine dining."