Tony Dugas, the principal of O’Keeffe Middle School, is excited about his 2nd annual Top Chef competition which takes students from his school who are interested in the culinary world and gives them a chance to be the apprentices of the some of Madison’s top executive chefs and restaurants.

“I believe that if kids are exposed to the right things at an early age and really get a chance to try things, it can make a difference. It’s like the work I did in Boston where we exposed our middle school students to at least SIX apprenticeships throughout their 8th-grade year with the Citizen Schools program,” Dugas tells Madison365. “The idea was to build social capital and to help kids understand the power of networking and create this pathway.”

As part of this Top Chef competition, small teams of O’Keeffe kids are currently working with Madison’s top chefs to learn how to create a delicious meal and will compete against each other in front of a panel of celebrity judges. The final competition for Top Chef will be Thursday, April 27, at the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s near east side.

O'Keeffe Principal Tony Dugas
O’Keeffe Principal Tony Dugas

Dugas says that the thinking behind Top Chef, a competition he has held successfully years ago as director of Eighth Grade Academy for Citizen Schools in Boston, fits right in with the Madison Metropolitan School District current big push for pathways in the schools. “How do you expose kids to industries and jobs early on and let them choose their own pathways based upon their interests?” Dugas asks. “With this Top Chef project, we wanted to do that for the students. We thought: what can we do to get kids connected to the food industry in a really fun way?”

That’s where the Top Chef competition came to mind. Six of Madison’s award-winning chefs from some of Madison’s favorite restaurants – Sardine, Pig in a Fur Coat, Brocach on the Square, Weary Traveler, Tavernakaya, and Cooper’s Tavern – have been teaming up with excited and talented middle-school students to create delicious meals to be judged by celebrity judges.

“These are all top-notch executive chefs at these six restaurants who have been working with the kids. On the 27th of April, they will come together for the competition,” Dugas says. “The kids have been practicing a specific dish based upon conversations with the chef and will be judged on four things – taste, presentation, creativity, and the most important thing – teamwork.

“Michelle Nelson is the real machine behind the event,” Dugas adds. “She’s the one that makes this thing go. She brings us all together.”

Nelson is an advanced learning instructional resource teacher at O’Keeffe and has been involved with Top Chef from the beginning.
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“Tony had done something like the Top Chef in Boston and last year was the first year and he approached me to help pull this off,” Nelson tells Madison365. “This is a great project for me to be working on because I love food and the local restaurant industry here in Madison. What I do for a living is I work with middle-schoolers, so I’m marrying the two things together.

The young people learn the value of sustainably grown local produce and meat prepared by hand and they also receive practical experience working in a commercial kitchen to explore the prospects of a career in the restaurant business.

“We do love the idea of introducing the young people to a whole field of careers. It’s very fun to watch the kids working with the chef, too,” Nelson says. “The kids that are working with the chefs are pretty excited. They are learning many things they didn’t know about before.”

This year’s Top Chef will be raising money for a makeover of the O’Keeffe Middle School library.

“Last year, Top Chef was about getting money for technology. This year, our library really, really needed some work. The tables are literally from 1960 or older,” Dugas laughs. “We felt that we wanted to take that place and make it a place that was beautiful. Aesthetics are so important in school and we wanted to put some energy into this space.”

It’s free admission to the Top Chef event. The chefs and the restaurants will have small plates for sale and all of the proceeds will go to O’Keeffe Middle School. “We’re hoping that we can get as many people in the door as we can. Come and see these kids do this amazing thing and wow the crowd,” Dugas says. “It’s friendly and fun competition. We will have some great celebrity judges.”

Last year's Top Chef celebrity judges: (L-r) MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Mentoring Positives founder Will Green, Badger basketball star Nigel Hayes, and State Rep. Melissa Sargent
Last year’s Top Chef celebrity judges: (L-r) MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Mentoring Positives founder Will Green, Badger basketball star Nigel Hayes, and State Rep. Melissa Sargent

Last year’s judges were Wisconsin Badger basketball star Nigel Hayes, State Rep. Melissa Sargent, MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, and Mentoring Positives founder Will Green.

“Having Nigel [Hayes] last year was really fun. He was really gracious and really patient signing autographs for all of the kids,” Nelson says. “We had a nice line-up for our judges last year and we will again this year.”

The teams of students will have 50 minutes to cook and serve their dish to attendees at Top Chef.

“The kids will be making a dish for the judges, but then each participating restaurant will sell small plates at the event and that is where the fundraising comes in,” Nelson says. “There is going to be a wide variety of food and it’s going to be really good. And it’s supporting a great cause.”

Top Chef is only in its second year, but Dugas has big plans for it already.

“Why couldn’t we have a citywide Top Chef experience some day? The event has potential,” he says. “There’s something about these young people spending time with and being exposed to these wonderful and talented adults. We want kids producing things and we want to keep finding ways to show the world the skills that these kids have that nobody ever thought they had.”

The Second Annual Top Chef Competition will be held at Thursday, April 27, 6 p.m., at Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St. For more information about the event, click here.