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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Kyla Curry's shrimp and grits

Ask most any chef and you'll discover that their love of cooking began at an early age, fostered by those closest to him or her, usually parents and grandparents. It's in their home kitchens that they honed their skills, learning to experience new dishes with an early eye on what flavors marry best; what garnishes add a pleasing touch; what textures work together for a palate-pleasing experience.

While their friends played, they were shaking things up in the kitchen, gently stirring a chocolate ganache, testing a cake layer for doneness, mashing potatoes for the ideal texture, and choosing cooking shows over cartoons.

Here's a look at three young cooks who have already made their mark on Chattanooga's culinary scene. Their passions were sparked at an early age, when they'd stand on their tippy-toes to see over the kitchen counter.

***

Kyla Curry

A rising sophomore at East Hamilton High School, Kyla Curry has accomplished something few her age have attempted — entering a culinary competition, the notorious "Chopped Junior" on the Food Network, no less, and coming home with the grand prize of $10,000.

"I like to experiment. It makes cooking so much fun," she says.

Just 14 years old, Kyla doesn't have to look too far back to remember the first dish she ever cooked: biscuits with her dad, Kenardo Curry.

"I was 3," she says.

It wasn't long after that when she realized she really liked to cook.

"I saw my two grandmothers cooking and my mom cooking, and I thought it would be a great hobby," Kyla says. "And I eventually found out it was really fun."

With the backing of her father, who entered her in the "Chopped Junior" competition, she began cooking, testing and tweaking her best recipes and techniques for the three categories in which she would compete on the show: appetizer, entree and dessert, each dish using several mandatory ingredients.

Her winning dishes were gingerbread-coated fish with watermelon-and-tomato salad; pork loin with artichoke-and-piquillo-pepper hash; and, for dessert, eggnog ice cream with bananas Foster and chocolate ganache.

It takes nerves of steel and intense focus to stand before judges and cameras and perform on demand. Kyla looked like she was born to it. "I'm fairly confident in my cooking, so I felt very calm throughout the show," she says.

With a win under her apron, she encourages any young person who has a talent for cooking to search the internet and find a contest that suits them, and enter.

"Go for it," she says. "It's better to try and not succeed than to never try and never know. 'Chopped Junior' was extremely fun, so if you have an opportunity, you should take it."

With her winnings, she "donated some to my family, bought a lot of shoes and saved some for college."

Kyla likes science and has plans to study food science in college. "I would like to become a food scientist when I'm older because it combines two of my passions: cooking and science," she says.

The pandemic and home schooling have given her more time to cook and experiment with new recipes, but she currently has no plans to enter more competitions herself.

"I'd just like to see where this takes me and scope out my next opportunities," she says. "I try to cook as much as I can, though."

One recipe she's been working on is her shrimp and grits.

Kyla's Shrimp and Grits

Makes 4 servings

What you need:

For the grits:

1 cup grits (not instant)

2 tablespoons sea salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground pepper

6 tablespoons butter, divided

1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the shrimp:

1 1/2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1/2 pound shrimp

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 sprigs of parsley for garnish

What you do:

1. Bring 4 cups water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add grits, and when they come to a simmer, add salt, pepper and butter. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then add cheese and simmer for 3-4 minutes or until grits are done.

2. Mix paprika, cayenne, cumin, coriander, onion powder and garlic powder in a small mixing bowl. Lay shrimp out in a line and sprinkle half of the seasoning mix on one side, then flip and sprinkle other half of seasoning mix on the other side.

3. Place shrimp in a lightly sprayed frying pan on high heat and let sear for 1 minute on each side. Add butter, salt, freshly ground pepper and lemon juice to pan, stirring to make sure shrimp is coated.

4. Spoon grits into individual bowls. Give the shrimp a last stir, then spoon over grits, along with the pan sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

***

Adelle Pritchard

Adelle Pritchard opened her first restaurant, Adelle's Creperie, when she was 12, just barely out of elementary school.

She was a big fan of the Food Network's "Cake Boss," and says that's what sparked her interest in cooking. So, at the tender age of 9, she started making cakes.

Her first few attempts looked and tasted like Play-Doh, nothing like the dazzling cakes she'd seen on TV. But she didn't give up, and eventually made a few that turned out OK, she says.

The show did something else for Adelle, though. It helped her realize that baking is a science — one in which she wasn't well-versed. But she loved to cook, so "I gravitated toward the freedoms and forgiveness of cooking rather than baking," she says.

Her mom, Carla Pritchard, encouraged her daughter in the kitchen. "One of the most important things she did for me was to allow me to try and fail," Adelle says. "She let me experiment in the kitchen, which is how I realized just how fun cooking is. She would watch Food Network with me for hours and we would both come up with our own winning dishes, certain it would beat the other contestants'."

One of Adelle's favorite dishes to make was crepes, a dish that has been part of her life since early childhood.

"My dad is English, and an English tradition we carry on here is Pancake Day, pancakes meaning crepes in England," she explains. "Once a year, we would make hundreds of crepes — sweet, savory and everything in between — and invite as many people who could fit in our house.

"To me, crepes represent celebrating and bringing the people you care about together over fantastic food."

So, with the help of her mom and dad, Ken, and the support of her teachers, she opened Adelle's Creperie in 2016 on Main Street in an unused section of her mother's special event business, Chattanooga Presents!.

It wasn't easy finding a balance between work and school. And at 12 years of age, there was a lot of pressure to get everything right.

"If I messed up, people assumed it was because I was young, not because I'm human and we are all learning," says Adelle, adding that there are still times when she feels as though she needs to overcompensate to be taken seriously.

But she loves to cook, and not just crepes, though making crepes is like giving an artist a blank canvas. "Experimentation comes naturally," she says. "Some of the crepes on our menu are more traditional, but some are products of trial, error and success. Even now, we run new specials whenever I or any of the amazing creperie staff members come up with a new and delicious combination."

At home, Adelle continues to experiment in the kitchen, creating new recipes or putting new spins on traditional foods.

"I love cooking with people and for people. It's a big part of how I show gratitude," she says.

Along with the everyday stresses of school, this young restaurateur has also had to deal with "the stress that every cook or waiter has of wanting to make sure everyone gets and enjoys their food, but there's the added stress that it is my name on the building, so how well the restaurant functions is a reflection back on me," she says.

Does she recommend the restaurant business to other young people?

"The restaurant industry can sometimes have a scary reputation, but not everyone in it acts like Gordon Ramsey," the now-17-year-old says. "Especially near the beginning of the creperie, getting advice and encouragement from local chefs and restaurateurs was critical. Finding the right people to support you can make all the difference between a dream and reality."

For her, owning a restaurant has taught her things that many people don't learn until they are older — accepting help from others and realizing that running a small business isn't easy, for example.

"From my parents to my friends to the staff to our regular customers to the people who just recently found out about the creperie, it's a group effort. Everyone is vital," she says.

Recently, this young entrepreneur was featured in the New York Times best-seller "Living the Confidence Code," a book aimed at girls 8-12 years old with tips on how to become more self-confident.

Adelle's Creperie is open Tuesday-Saturday, but with a full school schedule including extracurricular activities such as theater and volunteering for political campaigns (Adelle intends to major in political science in college), she works at the creperie on Saturdays only.

One of Adelle's favorite crepes is her "Fire in the Hole," made with chicken, Monterey Jack cheese, spinach and sriracha, then topped with a housemade sriracha aioli. But she also has a sweet tooth, and her Chantilly cream crepes are the favorite dessert at her Main Street eatery.

To make Adelle's Chantilly cream crepes, one must start with her basic crepes.

Adelle's Basic Crepe Recipe

This makes enough for several crepes.

What you need:

1 cup sifted flour

3/4 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional, use only for sweet crepes)

3 tablespoons butter, melted

What you do:

1. Place all ingredients in a blender, adding melted butter last. Blend for about 10 seconds or until smooth. Chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes; overnight is ideal.

2. Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium heat and swirl about 1/4 cup batter evenly over skillet. Cook for about 30 seconds or until slightly golden, then flip and cook on other side for about 15 seconds.

3. Repeat until all batter is gone, stacking crepes on a plate with small pieces of waxed paper between each one. Fill with favorite topping, fold over and serve (see below).

Chantilly Cream Filling and Berry Topping

This makes enough sauce for several crepes, but you'll need to double or triple the ingredients for Chantilly cream according to how many you want to make.

What you need:

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/2 pint heavy whipping cream

1/4 of a 32-ounce container of vanilla Greek yogurt

2 1/2 cups frozen mixed berries (your choice)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

Strawberry jam (your favorite brand)

What you do:

1. Make the Chantilly cream: Combine powdered sugar, heavy cream and yogurt and whisk until smooth.

2. Make the berry topping: Separately, combine berries, brown sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan and boil for 5 minutes, then reduce to simmer for 10 minutes.

3. To assemble one crepe, put the Chantilly cream along the middle of the crepe, about 2 inches thick, all the way down. Spread strawberry jam along the cream. Roll the crepe parallel to the cream. Cut in half and top generously with berry sauce and fresh berries, if desired.

***

Ansleigh Gitgood

At 19, Ansleigh Gitgood is following a plan set forth when she was just a child.

"I first realized I had a passion for cooking when I was around 5 or 6, as funny as it sounds to be so young and know what I want to do for the rest of my life," she says.

Her mother, Amber, lost her battle with breast cancer when Ansleigh was only 7 years old. While she was ill, Ansleigh and her younger sister, Annasten, would stay with her maternal grandmother, Connie Daniels, whom her grandkids called Mimi.

"Mimi had a camcorder, and I remember I had my own cooking show, 'Ansleigh's Cookin' in the Kitchen,'" Ansleigh recalls. "Ever since then, I've always said I would go to culinary school and pursue that."

And she has.

In the fall of 2019, she entered the Michael P. Hennen Hospitality and Culinary Center at Chattanooga State and completed her studies this past spring. After completing some non-culinary-related classes in the fall, she will graduate with a degree in applied science in hospitality and tourism with a concentration in culinary arts in December 2021, with plans to pursue a culinary career.

"This school has helped me in so many ways. I owe everything to Chef Matthew (Williamson, director of the culinary center). He is one of the best teachers and mentors I have ever had," Ansleigh says.

Before starting her studies at Chattanooga State, she admits she didn't know much about cooking, just the fact that it was her passion. Other than cooking for herself — "My guilty pleasures are garlic mashed potatoes and baked mac and cheese," she says — her primary "clients" were family members.

"Since then, the school has helped me develop leadership skills, build my confidence, and taught me some great techniques to use in the kitchen," she adds.

While attending school, Ansleigh's gained hands-on experience at Chick-fil-A, where she was cross-trained in positions from the front of the restaurant to the kitchen and finally to a management position. After three years there, she moved to Niedlov's on Main Street and is currently working in the kitchen prepping foods, making salads and expediting orders. By year's end, she hopes to progress to making the cafe's mouthwatering pastries, she says.

In the future, Ansleigh plans to open a bakery or café, maybe a food truck, called Gitgood Sweets. For now, though, she plans to stay at Niedlov's and start a sideline business, getting her feet wet online selling some of her Gitgood Sweets confections: cakes, cookies, brownies and cupcakes.

"It'll give me a chance to test some things out," she says.

Devil's Food Crumble Cake

Ansleigh Gitgood got this recipe from fellow culinary student Mac McGuire.

Makes 12 servings

What you need:

3 cans sweetened condensed milk

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter

3 cups sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

3 large eggs, plus 1 yolk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 cup brewed hot coffee

For the topping:

3 kiwis

8 strawberries

2 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 tablespoons sugar

What you do:

1. Pour cans of sweetened condensed milk into a squeeze bottle and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit and grease two round 9-inch baking pans, then line each pan with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray.

2. In a large bowl, sift flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter at medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Gradually add in both sugars, one at a time, and beat until sugars are incorporated into the butter. Increase mixer speed to high and beat until mixture is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add three eggs plus one egg yolk, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add vanilla extract, beating until blended.

4. Combine oil and sour cream in a separate bowl.

5. On the lowest speed setting, add flour mixture to butter mixture in three additions, alternating with sour cream mixture and beating just until combined. You should see a light trail of the dry ingredients when you stop the mixer.

5. Pour in hot coffee and let the mixture sit, untouched, for 30 seconds. Then, using a rubber spatula, gently stir until the batter is just evenly combined.

6. Divide batter between prepared pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. The cake will have a light bit of rise, but you're looking for a finished cake that's about 1 inch thick. Bake in preheated oven for 38-45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean or with a few crumbs attached. Keep an eye on the cake and don't overcook or it will come out too dry. When cakes are done, place them on wire racks to cool for about an hour or until cooled completely.

7. While cakes are cooling, peel and dice kiwi into small to medium dice. Without removing the stems, slice strawberries into fans.

8. Make meringue: Beat egg whites with cream of tartar at high speed with an electric mixer, just until foamy. Add sugar gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until soft peaks form and sugar dissolves, 2-4 minutes.

9. To serve, cut the cakes into 1-inch cubes. Crumbles are OK, too. Drizzle sweetened condensed milk into the bottom of a small bowl and top with cake pieces, then drizzle with more sweetened condensed milk and top with meringue and a few pieces of kiwi. Attach a fanned strawberry to the side of the bowl and serve. Repeat with remaining cake pieces.

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