Joliet Junior College freshman is national ‘Student Chef of the Year’

JJC Chef Paul Bringas: ‘She’s just a really remarkable student’

Caitlyn Drzyzga, 21, of Lockport (center) representing Joliet Junior College, earned first place in the Student Chef of the Year competition at the American Culinary Federation National Convention in July in New Orleans. Drzyzga is pictured with JJC culinary competition team coaches Chef Alexis Ramos (left) and Chef Paul Bringas (right).

Last fall Caitlyn Drzyzga of Lockport entered Joliet Junior College’s culinary arts program knowing little about cooking.

She’s now a national champion.

Drzyzga, 21, earned first place in the Student Chef of the Year competition at the American Culinary Federation National Convention in July in New Orleans.

“It feels so good,” Drzyzga said. “I can’t really believe it.”

JJC Chef Paul Bringas, who coaches the culinary competition team with fellow JJC Chef Alexis Ramos, said it’s extremely unusual for a freshman to earn this award and that Drzyzga was “just a joy to coach.”

“She’s just a really remarkable student,” Bringas said. “She practiced extremely hard and had some really good results. I’m very proud.”

Drzyzga had only dabbled in baking before enrolling in JJC. At age 11, she began making the traditional lamb cake in the lamb cake mold her family’s used for three generations, she said. She progressed to cupcakes and cookies, but baking was a hobby.

“It wasn’t until I learned about JJC’s culinary program and realized, ‘Wow, I can make a career of this, and people are really successful in this industry,’” Drzyzga said.

“To watch Cait go from freshman student to a national title in a year is phenomenal. She can carry that for the rest of her life.”

—  Joliet Junior College Chef Paul Bringas, co-coach of the culinary competition team

‘Leap of faith’

Drzyzga graduated from Lincoln-Way East High School in 2020 and delayed her plans to study business in Colorado until after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, she learned about JJC’s culinary arts program and “took a leap of faith” instead by enrolling,

“I had no idea how to cook,” Drzyzga said. “I didn’t even know how to cut an onion.”

But Drzyzga said she worked hard in her classes and made great progress. In just two months, an instructor recommended her for the culinary competition team. Since the team was full, Bringas thought Drzyzga should try for Student Chef of the Year.

“It’s a big task for a freshman student,” he said. “But Cait was that kind of student who would step up and do really, really well.”

Drzyzga was not so certain.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure? Can I really do this?’” Drzyzga said. “They assured me that I had something special. And I had the time for it. They told me to go for it.”

Drzyzga said she practiced about three to six hours a day, three days a week. For the regional competition in March in Kansas, Drzyzga made Chicken Wellington, small potato dumplings, glazed vegetables and au jus sauce.

Drzyzga placed third at regionals, but Bringas said he knew she could do better. So they rethought her process, and she kept practicing, never getting flustered, he said.

“She just did the technique over until she got it,” Bringas said. “So a lot of that credit goes to Cait and her work ethic and her desire to be at the top of her game. She’s a very competitive person. … Hopefully she continues to compete and progress.”

For nationals, Drzyzga prepared an amuse-bouche (a one-note appetizer), pan-seared duck breast, glazed carrots and roasted romenesko (Roman cauliflower). Along the way, she also learned about organization, timing and “a lot about herself,” such as her love for competition, she said.

“That adrenalin rush in the kitchen is amazing,” Drzyzga said.

She still plans to study business at a later date since possible career goals include owning a restaurant or catering company or working as a private chef, she said. For now, she’s marveling at how far she’s come.

“These past eight months, I’ve learned all these new techniques,” Drzyzga said. “My coaches really put a lot of time into showing me new things and I just caught on really quickly.”

Bringas agreed.

“To watch Cait go from freshman student to a national title in a year is phenomenal,” Bringas said. “She can carry that for the rest of her life.”

Growth mindset

At the same convention, JJC’s culinary student competition team earned fourth place, Bringa said The team took first place in the central regional competition. JJC had placed second at the nationals qualifier.

Joliet Junior College's culinary competition team took fourth place at the American Culinary Federation National Convention in July in New Orleans. Pictured (from left) are student team members Noah Hook (captain), Anthony Bozue, Taylor Washington, and Rick Nava and alternate Olivia Valentino.

Student team members are Noah Hook (Captain), Anthony Bozue, Rick Nava, Taylor Washington and Olivia Valentino.

“it can be a tough pill to swallow” when you enter a competition with high hopes and fail to achieve the awards you wanted, Bringas said.

But he reminded them that getting into the national competition and among the top 5 culinary competition teams in the U.S. is “an amazing achievement.”

“There are some teams that never get to nationals,” Bringas said. “I’m super proud of the team.”

Awards are less important than growth, he said, and all the students on the team grew from the experience.

“Every single one of the students improved in so many ways in a year,” Bringas said. “I look at that as win.”