Culinary Dance: Student Chef of Year Finalist Roman Nourse Polishes His Moves for ACF Competition

After practicing his signature entrée for the upcoming American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) national competition twice a week for the past three months, 24-year-old Roman Nourse often finds himself cooking duck in his sleep. “And if I can’t sleep at night, I’m just running through what I’m doing,” he said, referencing a tightly timed schedule he has prepared. The recent culinary school grad is headed to the ACF national finals in New Orleans where he'll compete against five other chefs in the National Student Chef of the Year Competition on Tuesday, July 18.

Nourse, who is originally from outside Nashville, Tennessee, but grew up in Waynesville, defeated 22 other competitors in the Southeast Student Chef of the Year contest in Overland Park, Kansas in March, landing a spot to compete. Though this is A-B Tech’s 14th time sending a team to the national finals, Chef Instructor Chris Bugher said Nourse is the first individual student chef to compete in eight years.

Despite his obvious passion, Nourse is relatively new to the culinary world. In 2017 he began a meteorology program at UNC, though realized two years into it that his heart wasn’t in it. He found his way to A-B Tech at a friend’s suggestion. “I was cooking for friends a lot at the time on Monday nights and I realized how much I loved cooking because it makes people happy.”

After taking a couple of classes, Nourse signed up for the 71-credit culinary arts associate degree program, working two food industry jobs while in school to pay the rent. After serving as captain of the Las Vegas culinary team in 2022, Nourse aimed to compete in the Southeast Student Chef competition this year but was told the college only had funding to support the team, not an individual chef. Undaunted, he bought all his own ingredients for the first three weeks of cooking practice. Seeing his persistence, the school decided to step in.

“We knew Roman had what it takes to compete,” Bugher said, “so we started to ask for the college’s support, and they graciously agreed to help.”

Nourse aced the contest in Kansas, beating 22 competitors and winning the admiration of judges and fellow students alike. “Many students look up to him,” Bugher said. “They say the way he moves during competition is like a dance.”

These days, with the student chef competition approaching Nourse is preparing himself mentally to compete. Cooking for judges on a timer, he said, is not as easy as it may look. “I get anxious and sometimes my hands shake. I’m thinking of telling the judges ‘If you see me shaking, it’s because I’m excited. If I start to panic, I’m going to put my tools down, step back and reset.”

Luckily, the naturally easygoing chef has had lots of practice. In the past three months, he’s butchered 32 ducks to perfect his carving skills. For the judges, he’ll have to prepare an appetizer that reflects the flavors of New Orleans, and an entrée that includes duck and captures the spirit of the South.

Despite the occasional attack of nerves, Nourse is thrilled at the chance to compete in New Orleans. He hopes to try his first taste of ‘gator, to connect with a few favorite chefs he’s met over the past two years, and to win the respect of the judges.

“I feed off the energy of other people,” he said. “Getting the attention of everyone is going to be awesome.”

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