Top Chefs: Phoenix Culinary Students Compete for Regional Title

There's no secret ingredient here; just nine culinary student teams competing for The America Culinary Federation's Western Regional title.

On Saturday, the Arizona team from the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Phoenix will duke it out in three stages: cold-food preparation, skills salon and cooking. If the Phoenix team wins, they will represent the Western region in the national competition in August.

"It's like going to the superbowl," says the team's coach, Francine Marz. "There are only a few big competitions throughout the year -- Saturday is game day."

The team has been practicing since August, so they say they're not worried about working together -- they just have to survive the nine-hour car trip to Albuquerque.

To compete for the title, the Art Institute of Phoenix team had to beat out other culinary students in local and state competitions. On Saturday they'll be up against students from California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The team includes Justin Cooper (captain), Abel Ley (appetizer course), David Rico (salad and skills alternate), Jeremy Stephens (hot-food alternate) and Heather Pfarr (baking and pastries). They applied and were selected based on culinary and teamwork skills. Marz prepares and coaches the students during a six-month period.

All dishes that are prepared will be measured, tasted and judged by a panel that will announce a winner on Feb. 8 at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque. (As if you needed another reason to check out the place where High School Musical was filmed, where Bill Gates was arrested or where Weird Al got the inspiration for his 11-minute song.)