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VUHS grad cooks his way to U.S. title

NATIONAL CULINARY CHAMP Nima Mehregan, left, said he wouldn’t be who he is today if not for his coach Chef Woody Danforth, with whom he is posing.

Something happened inside me. I started cooking at home and discovered that I am so, so passionate about food.
— Nima Mehregan

VERGENNES — One entire chicken. Saffron, bell peppers, walnuts, rice. Eight full dishes to be prepared and plated. Two carefully angled cameras. One on-site observer. Two hours and 10 minutes on the clock.

Ready … GO!

Eighteen-year-old Nima Mehregan, a budding chef who had just graduated from Vergennes Union High School five days before, faced down these nail-biting conditions on June 16 to become the Gold Medalist in the high school Culinary Arts division of this year’s SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference.

Mehregan won the state division of the competition in April, making him eligible to compete nationally and bring home the gold — a first for Vermont.

Because of COVID-19 risks, the competition was conducted virtually, with Mehregan facing evaluation over zoom as well as by an in-person taster and observer. The results of the competition weren’t announced until nine days later. And when they were, Mehregan was almost speechless.

“I exploded crying for five minutes,” he told the Independent. “It’s amazing, I did my best and it paid off.”

Mehregan said he practiced his award-winning menu, which included cream of tomato soup, stack chicken salad and braised chicken thigh Ballotine stuffed with mushroom, parsley, leeks, onions and walnuts, every single day for the two and a half weeks leading up to the competition.

“I felt prepared and confident,” he said.

Still, it was a stressful experience. Mehregan had to make and plate two portions of each of his four dishes — one for the judges over Zoom and one for the onsite observer — and he had only five minutes to plate each course.

Because half of his evaluation was happening through a screen, Mehregan chose to make food that looked, as well as tasted, really good. He used saffron to tinge rice a bright yellow and incorporated carrots and red bell peppers into his dishes. He said that he designed the menu himself but could only use certain specified ingredients and had to use as much of the chicken as possible, according to competition guidelines.

Mehregan said he’s proud of his hard work and dedication, and it all comes down to his passion for food. But despite his seasoned panache in the kitchen, he only started cooking seriously two years ago.

Mehregan moved from Iran to Vermont with his family in 2017. Initially he thought he wanted to be an engineer or a doctor.

“The first two years of high school were really hard for me,” he said, noting that at the time he was learning English as well as everything else about his new country.

But in his sophomore year, when his class took a field trip to the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury and toured the kitchen there, “something happened inside me,” Mehregan said. “I started cooking at home and discovered that I am so, so passionate about food.”

He spent his senior year as one of eight students in the Career Center culinary program working under Chef Woody Danforth, who Mehregan said is to thank for who he is today as a cook, as well as a person.

Danforth never thought he would be coaching a SkillsUSA champ, but he knew Mehregan had a shot. Danforth enlisted the help of colleagues and friends in the industry who had more experience with competition cooking, as well as the support (and taste buds) of fellow Career Center mentors.

“I really had very little to do with it … this young man drove the whole bus,” Danforth said. “He’s unique; he’s got good knife skills, a good imagination and a good palate … You just don’t get to coach someone like that.”

Mehregan was just as thrilled.

“About halfway through the year (working with Danforth), I was like ‘I want to spend my whole entire life doing this,” he said.

He plans to do just that, starting this summer. Just three weeks after graduating from VUHS, Mehregan is working “on-the-line” in the kitchen at Mohonk Mountain House Resort in New York’s Hudson Valley. Mehregan clinched the job on a field trip with HCC when the head chef at Mohonk noticed his obvious care for preparing food. Mehregan, who is working together with more than 80 other cooks every day, is delighted to find himself among like-minded folks from all over the world and said he has already learned a great deal.

But there’s something only he brings to the table.

“I’m still so new to American food,” Mehregan said.

When he’s with his family, Mehregan cooks Persian food — and only when his mother lets him into the kitchen. At home with the sauces, spices and stews that set Persian dining apart, Mehregan said he hopes to someday open a Persian-American fusion restaurant, where, he said, “Persian and American foods can complement each other on the same plate.”

Through food, Mehregan hopes to educate people about culture.

“Both countries have the wrong image in their minds of each other,” he said of the United States and Iran. “I want to inform people, show Americans what Persian culture is really about.”

He said he wouldn’t mind a restaurant named “Nima’s.”

Mehregan said the next step toward that dream is already laid out for him — attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., this fall.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Mehregan said, “I’m so excited to step into another stage of my life.”

To cooks, friends and everyone else, Mehregan’s advice is the same advice he would give to anyone learning English.

“Practice, practice, practice, work hard and be willing to learn…. If you do that, you can do anything you want.”

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