Sharp knifes, sizzling cast irons and the smell of fresh exotic food, right under your nose. Mouths instantly salivating as students, judges and peers crowd into Lakewood High School's cafeteria for Sodexo's "Kitchen Wars," the annual battle of teen chefs, treated to original appetizers, entrees and desserts hand-crafted by culinary students.

At the March 16 contest, the high school's General Manager of Food Services, Corey Goldfarb, said "Kitchen Wars" introduces students to different cultures, different experiences and different foods. It also empowers students who have a passion for the culinary industry, teaching them recipe building, time management and teamwork.

"Kitchen Wars" took painstaking planning. Goldfarb and Chef James Conway started preparing in September. Teams were assigned in December and weekly meetings began in January. Culinary students must take a food safety course before they begin prepping their desired ethnic food.

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit Chris Scali)

Students formed their own groups and paired with professional advisor.s Goldfarb said they had to do all of the work.

“We consult with them, we tell them what will work, what won’t work in their recipes, but they do the whole thing.”

Goldfarb customarily asks the students to go outside their comfort zones; he doesn’t want his culinary professionals to turn out the same old foods that they do at home.

“This year we have one team that’s doing the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival. You’re going to see moshi cakes, yakitori, a few other items. We have the Day of the Dead, which are making fresh roast pork enchiladas.”

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit: Chris Scali)

My favorite cuisine was the Oktoberfest station. I tried the sauerbraten pretzels - homemade pretzels stuffed with  chicken and sauerkraut. The dish wasn’t salty and the bread wasn’t soggy. Every single ingredient was exquisite and not overdone. Students were judged on a scale from one to five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. Judges graded the food on taste, appearance, originality, presentation and knowledge of recipe.

Kitchen Wars. Lakewood High School (Photo Credit: Chris Scali

The Kitchen War winner doesn’t only get bragging rights but they receive the portion of the five-dollar donation that’s received at the door. They get to pick what group they’d like to fund and support at Lakewood High School.

“We felt that funding is always very difficult for school clubs and they have to fundraisers." Goldfarb said. "So this is a fun way for the community to come out and see what these kids are really capable of. It’s a great way to raise money while having fun.”

Many students who participate in kitchen wars are inspired to learn more about culinary arts.

“You would be really surprised that the students who never cooked before, who come out of this, join the chefs club next year to take his class. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them did go on to a culinary career.”

Chef James Conroy who has a very interesting story; before teaching Kitchen Wars at Lakewood High School, he was previously a consultant for Lakewood High. Conroy was only going to write the school's curriculum, but a position opened up. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.

“It turns out they needed teacher, so I changed careers. I jumped out of my career in management and consulting and I went back to school to be a teacher.”

The Lakewood High School district wanted to organize a culinary program. Conroy came in and revved up the curriculum. Lakewood had a home economics program, Conroy believed it needed some updating.

“So thanks to the Perkins Grant,  we were able to fund the program and get new text. The kids are really into it, because...where don’t you see food service now? Everyone is into food, you see it on TV, and the kids are into it. And really it’s employing hospitality and tourism, [which] employs half the people in the country.”

Conroy teaches his students many pearls in this industry, one of them being honesty, especially honesty with one's self. The next pearl he teaches his students is sanitation and safety. Conroy says it’s the essential part of this business. Finally he wants his students to have fun and enjoy what they’re cooking.

Jason Byrd talking about his favorite dish at Kitchen Wars. (Photo Credit: Chris Scali)

“I have a couple of students out there now in hotels, I have a couple of students who went to culinary school. So we had some success here that I am really pleased with.”

Conroy says it makes him feel proud knowing that his students are succeeding in this industry. Being in the food industry isn’t any cakewalk, you must have the “roll up the sleeves” mentality.

“I think the hardest part is probably the hours. Everyone is out having fun and you're working. But we learn to really enjoy it and make good time of it in the business. Sometimes when you go out, you go out a bit later. Sometimes you celebrate Christmas and the New Year a day or two later. But we always celebrate anyway, and it doesn’t really matter.”

You must also love serving and making food. If you don’t like that, then Conway says this is the wrong business for you. Conroy’s students are ready to hit the ground running in this industry. Conroy wanted his students to learn from this experience and carry it over to next years Kitchen Wars and beyond.

“I honestly have to say this is the hardest working group of individuals I’ve ever seen. Two teachers, five students and they worked their behinds off the last three days.”

Also Lakewood High School administrators and Chef James Conroy hope to burnish the school's overall image through the extraordinary event.

“This is what Lakewood is about now, there bad stories about Lakewood, the kids in Lakewood, about the families. They’re great families in Lakewood, they’re the best kids I ever taught. “

Chef James Conroy has no plans of leaving Lakewood High School, but he'd like to help implement this program to other schools in Monmouth and Ocean County.