The kitchen in the culinary arts wing at Waldo County Technical Center is always a busy place to be, but in the coming weeks, three of Chef Mark Hannibal's students will be perfecting their skills to go up against the best young cooks in the country.

Come May, Mount View High School seniors Oona Foley, Ali Bryant and team captain Amanda Schiessl will head to Minneapolis, Minn. to compete in the National Restaurant Association-sponsored national cook-off alongside youths representing schools all over the country as well as teams from Puerto Rico and Guam.

About two weeks ago, Foley, Bryant and Schiessl earned the right to represent the Pine Tree State after placing first at the statewide competition, a win that was especially sweet for the WCTC team, as they were down a teammate and spent much of the night before building a strategy to overcome the reduction in their force.

In addition, Hannibal said the girls were up against a four-person team from Lewiston, a technical school that is considered a powerhouse competitor due to the size of its program and the fact that they were the 2013 state champions. The WCTC team, said Hannibal, placed second to that team last year.

"This year they called us the dark horse," said Schiessl, adding that she and her teammates opted to use their statewide nickname as their team name when they head to nationals.

Hannibal said the trio has had lots of support from people who are well-known in Maine's culinary circles, such as award-winning Chef Wilfred Beriau, the longtime department chair and professor of culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and Gary Sheldon, executive chef at Sysco. A man in Gray who works for Swiss Army Knife, said Hannibal, provided each of the contestants with a new knife kit, which contains all the cutlery the girls will need to make the cut at nationals.

Hannibal said the support the team has received from around the state will be very helpful for each of them after they have graduated high school and completed the program at WCTC, when it's time to strike out into the workforce.

"These are the people who you want to know your name," said Hannibal. "And they're developing relationships with these people in the industry already."

There are high expectations on the part of judges at the national contest, said Hannibal, as the team will be judged on everything from their knife cuts and use of the two burners they are afforded to prepare a three-course meal to costing out the whole menu, breaking it down to the ounce of each ingredient used.

The team plans to prepare a meal with Maine products as the centerpiece, beginning with a salad consisting of a bed of greens, grapefruit, goat cheese and toasted walnuts with a balsamic dressing. The main course, Schiessl said, will consist of a marinated lamb chop with a red wine reduction with asparagus and orzo, a dish that will be topped off by the dessert, a homemade blueberry Bavarian featuring a maple syrup component and fresh berries.

While the competition will go a long way toward building relationships in the field and affording each team member opportunities to earn scholarship money, they each say they are looking forward to the general experience, meeting other students who share their love of cooking, and showing their fellow young chefs just what a team from Waldo County can do.

"I'm feeling confident," said Schiessl, who was a member of last year's runner-up team.

"I like that we're seniors, and we all get to go this year," added Foley.

Each team member said they have always enjoyed cooking. Foley and Bryant said they both grew up cooking with their families, and Schiessl spent much of her youth working in a local restaurant that her family owns.

"I found out about the class here and I really wanted to try it," said Foley.

All three of the girls are second-year culinary arts students.

As the threesome worked on cutting up whole chicken Wednesday afternoon, March 19, Hannibal occasionally offered tips on what to expect at nationals — no jewelry or nail polish allowed, hair must be secured and chef coats and hats must be worn for the big event.

"This is straight-up, guts cooking," Hannibal told his team.

But it's not so much work for these young chefs as it is a labor of love — Wednesday, they made plans to get together regularly outside school hours to fine-tune their skills, all with the intention of turning up the heat on their competitors.

"It's something we all like to do, and we just bond over it," said Foley.

Those interested in sampling some of the dishes Hannibal and all of his students prepare have the chance to do so at the WCTC cafe, which Hannibal said is typically open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. With the upcoming competition fast approaching, Hannibal suggested those interested in coming by make reservations ahead of time by calling 342-5231.