The students, all seniors from Philadelphia and Delaware County public high schools, were in the final round of the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program's (C-CAP) Philadelphia regional competition: a two-hour MasterChef-esque display of poise and flair. All before eight judges.
The students' task: Prepare, from memory, a two-course French meal. First on the menu was hunter's chicken with tourné potatoes. Then they had to make dessert crepes with pastry cream and chocolate sauce.
"Many of these students are going to be the first in their families to go to college," said C-CAP president Susan Robbins. "There's a lot riding on this."
Friday's top performers could receive more than $100,000 in scholarship money for culinary school. All of the finalists are guaranteed at least a few thousand dollars in college support. The students will learn how much they've won at an awards luncheon in April.
"It's the dream of a lifetime for a lot of them," said Sylva Senat, an area chef who received a C-CAP scholarship after graduating from high school in 1998 in New York.
As the clocked ticked down, the scene that unfolded in Drexel's cooking laboratory resembled the Schuylkill Expressway on a bumper-to-bumper afternoon. Pots and pans clashed, students brushed shoulders as they went to and from the fridge to get more ingredients, and steam curled from stove tops.
The judges spent the competition hovering over the workstations, their facial expressions shifting amid head nods and frowns.
Each judge paid attention to different things. Were the strawberries sliced properly? Was the pastry cream the right consistency? Was the chocolate sauce too bitter? Too sweet?
"This one's a bit undercooked," Victoria Grant, C-CAP's program director for Philadelphia, said as she took her first bite of a chicken dish.
The students, in addition to being judged on taste and presentation, were evaluated on speed, confidence, and safety in the kitchen.
For Hanible, a senior at Kensington's Mastbaum High, the hardest part was the tourné - a French technique that involves shaving a potato down into a small, seven-sided, football-shape delicacy.
Abdul Muallem, a 20-year-old senior at South Philadelphia High, found the crepes to be the most challenging.
"It never turns out exactly like you thought it would," he said. "You have to make adjustments."
Muallem's final product was ornate. His three crepes were drizzled with chocolate sauce, and the strawberries at the edge of his plate were spread out widely, like the feathers of a Thanksgiving turkey.
When the two hours were up, each of the judges offered a frank but constructive assessment of the students' cooking chops.
"Immature," Peter McAndrews, a chef at several Philadelphia Italian restaurants, said of some of the dishes he sampled.
"The flavors are there, the taste is there, but most of them don't know how to put it together yet," he said. "They'll learn."