Eighteen-year-old Kealan O’Boyle led his team to a national cooking championship that helped change his and his teammates’ lives forever
by Kara Hansen
It may not have been “Iron Chef America,” but winning a national culinary competition was a dream come true for Kealan O’Boyle.
O’Boyle’s roots in cooking started with classic American cuisine in his own kitchen.
“I would usually make pancakes from scratch on weekends and, as a kid, Kealan always liked to get in there and try adding different things like allspice, blueberries, or bananas,” recalled Kealan’s father, Dan O’Boyle. “He was always experimenting and wanting to try new things.”
O’Boyle’s repertoire expanded to bigger and better things as he grew older. O’Boyle started working at a neighbor’s restaurant at 15 years of age, where he learned the basics of cooking and developed a strong interest in the culinary field. A graduate of Olathe Northwest, O’Boyle participated in the Olathe school district’s culinary program during his junior and senior years of high school.
“That’s when I first got involved with cooking competitively,” said O’Boyle, 18, a parishioner of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee.
Making it to the national competition required O’Boyle — the team leader— and his three partners to win at the state level in Kansas. They first decided on a menu, approved by their instructor, and began practicing it over and over until they reached near-perfection.
Once the team surpassed the 17 other schools at the state competition, it moved onto the National ProStart Invitational. ProStart is known as a program preparing students for a culinary career. As luck would have it, the competition site for 2010 was practically in O’Boyle’s backyard — Overland Park.
“Last year it was in San Diego and this year it was held in Kansas City,” said O’Boyle. “It was really nice to have family close by, and we had a huge support group there. The best part about the competition was getting to have it in our hometown.”
To say the competition, held May 2, created some stress for O’Boyle and his team would be an understatement. The quartet had to prepare a three-course meal in 60 minutes under the watchful eyes of 14 judges.
“We had two eight-foot tables and two [butane] burner stoves to work with for our meal,” said O’Boyle. “There was no refrigerator, so we had to use dry ice for the appetizer and two buckets of ice for the rest.”
Moreover, O’Boyle and his teammates drew the last cooking spot of the day.
“We were the last team to start cooking and it was stressful because everyone else had finished, but they were still in the room watching us,” said O’Boyle. “Plus we had the judges right in front of us, and there were certified master chefs, college instructors, leading business chefs — all there constantly watching us.”
But O’Boyle and his team rose to the occasion. They prepared a meal that was far beyond most teenagers’ cooking abilities and more in line with what one might find prepared by a professional chef. The appetizer was pan-seared yellow fin tuna on an avocado marble with tomato gremolata, Belgian endive, arugula and crisp vermicelli.
The entrée was pan-roasted pork ballotine stuffed with pecans, spinach and apple with Parmesan couscous, fresh apple slaw, chateau zucchini and a savory apple demi-glace. To finish off the meal, dessert was a white chocolate morello cherry Bavarian with a trio of poppy macerated berries on a chocolate painted plate with a crisp sugar tuile.
Once they were finished, O’Boyle and his teammates did not have to wait long to hear what the judges thought of their dishes, which were judged on flavor, profile, color balance, and taste.
“The only bad thing the judges had to say was that one of us needed to hem our pants,” said O’Boyle with a laugh. “They couldn’t think of anything bad to say about our food.”
He and his teammates received their first-place honors later at an awards dinner.
“It was pretty intense because we saw teams from 39 states make their dishes,” said Dan O’Boyle, who, along with Kealan’s mom Liz, watched the competition unfold. “I really thought Oregon and California had it, so when they named Oregon in fifth place, we knew Kealan did well. It was extremely exciting — we were jumping up and down and screaming.”
O’Boyle said he was excited about winning such a prestigious competition, but even more thrilled with the doors it opened for teammates.
“We were each given $170,000 in scholarship money and offered a full ride to Le Cordon Bleu (a culinary arts school),” said O’Boyle. “My teammates are not financially well-off, and the other senior on the team was planning to go to junior college, even though she wanted to pursue a bachelor’s in culinary arts. Now she is going to be able to do that. It’s been a life-changing experience for all of us.”
O’Boyle plans to pursue a degree in culinary arts at the New England Culinary Institute, which has produced notable alumni like Alton Brown of Food Network fame. O’Boyle also has hopes of one day studying cooking in France and Italy.
“It’s been my dream to go to the New England Culinary Institute,” said O’Boyle. “All the instructors are so passionate about what they are doing and you’re able to do three internships there when other programs only offer one.”
O’Boyle has long-term plans of becoming a professional chef or restaurant owner and is leaning toward French cooking as his specialty.
Regardless of where he goes in the culinary field, O’Boyle sees his faith as always playing a role in what he does.
“I really enjoy the hospitality part of the food industry and find joy in serving people food they can enjoy and enjoy looking at,” said O’Boyle.
Faith and food are the perfect combination for O’Boyle, as they both are known for bringing people — and especially families — together.
“I think faith has brought our family together more than other families I’ve seen who don’t practice any kind of faith together,” said O’Boyle.
As one might imagine, Dan and Liz are proud parents. Dan, who has a culinary and entrepreneur background, knows firsthand some of the challenges that might await Kealan as he pursues his dream.
“Kealan knows the restaurant life can be a hard one with long hours and lots of hard work,” said Dan. “But Kealan has a strong faith in God and he will depend or lean on God when times are tough.”