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POSTED February 19, 2014 12:57 a.m.

Manteca Unified chefs-in-training are off to a clam chowder cooking challenge this weekend in Santa Cruz.

The event is the widely popular annual Clam Chowder Cook-off fest held on the world-famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Five students in the Culinary Arts School of academy — formerly known as MUVA, or Manteca Unified Vocational Academy — will be representing the school district in the competition.

The five will not be in the chef showdown as amateurs although they are just high school students.

“The interesting part is that they are making our kids enter the professional division,” because they are being trained under a professional staff, explained Culinary Arts Chef Brian Ehrenholm who will be accompanying his student team to the competition.

Ehrenholm also proudly pointed out that the cooking team was one of only 75 picked for the professional division of the competition.

“They will go against the best restaurants in the Santa Cruz area” and other seasoned chefs, Ehrenholm said.

Adding a generous dash of prestige to the team’s selection is the fact cooking contestants send in applications and “you get to be picked because there are so many that want to enter,” he explained.

The clam chowder recipe that is entering is the creation of Ann Drum, a senior student who will be one of the first to graduate from the two-year Culinary Arts program.

Because this is her original recipe, Drum was given the liberty to choose four of her classmates to be on her team, so much like an Iron Chef in the popular cooking channel show gets to pick his or her sous chefs.

Drum’s Manhattan or white clam chowder recipe began as a class assignment.

“The kids are given basic recipes to use every day in the cafe,” Ehrenholm said, describing a typical day of learning in the Culinary Arts program.

“Everything you make here starts from scratch. So when we make clam chowder we use fresh clams, vegetables and cream,” he explained.

While the students are given basic recipes, they are given the liberty to make any changes they want with the chef’s approval.

One of the students “doctored up” the recipe and made the clam chowder better.

“She took it upon herself to add other herbs to it because she thought it needed this,” Ehrenholm said.

He was talking about Drum who dreams of owning her own business someday. She already has taken the very important step toward the realization of that dream. She has just been accepted to attend the prestigious Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy in Rhode Island where she will begin her studies in the fall following graduation when she will receive two diplomas – one for completing high school, and the other for finishing her culinary arts studies at

Drum’s clam chowder quickly became a favorite. It is served every Friday at Cafe, the restaurant run and operated by the Culinary Arts students which is open to the public every day to the public. The clam chowder became such a hit that the cafe had to double the amount served.

“It’s very good,” was Ehrenholm’s unabashed description of the Cafe’s popular soup.

For the clam chowder challenge in Santa Cruz this weekend, Drum selected as part of her team classmates Karen Harvey, Brian Burns, Gilbert, and Skey.

“This was Ann’s recipe so I let her choose the team,” said Ehlerholm who will be the students’ driver. The other adult chaperone will be Sandy Helsel, a Nutrition Services supervisor.

There will be two clam chowder competition categories — Boston and Manhattan. The group will be competing in the Manhattan category, or white chowder. There are Best in Show awards for both. First place award for each category will two free round-trip tickets to the destination of one’s choice courtesy of United Airlines, one of the event’s sponsors. There will some cash to be won as well, plus there will be People’s Choice awards.

The grand prize for the overall winner will be an all-expenses-paid invitation to the world food championships in Las Vegas, the next level after the Santa Cruz competitions in which chefs from all over the world will be the main attractions with a “super chowder category” as one of the featured contests.

“When you go to these events, you buy what they call tasting kits. So we need Manteca to come and vote for us,” said Ehrenholm with a laugh.

They will have to set up and decorate their own cooking booth as well. Their theme will be Central Valley Fresh.

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