KINGMAN - Regardless of how you might feel about the condiment, you're going to want Mayo on your food.
A senior at Kingman High School, Alex Mayo has only been cooking for a few years, but he's already laid the groundwork for an impressive culinary career. The star student of KHS culinary program director chef Michael Gaul, Mayo has won a variety of awards in cooking competitions across the state over the past two years, including a $3,000 college scholarship for his contributions to the Careers through Culinary Arts Program competition held in Phoenix last month.
"I think he can go as far as he wants to go," Gaul said of Mayo. "He's very creative." Mayo got his start in the culinary arts working as a dishwasher at the Hotel Brunswick downtown during his freshman year at KHS. Just before he turned 16, he said, the chef there took Mayo under his wing and started showing him the basics of restaurant-style food preparation. It was during this time that Mayo said he first got the idea that cooking was what he wanted to do as a career.
"Making something out of nothing is very enjoyable," he said. "It's rewarding making people happy."
Mayo was already doing his own catering for small parties and other private jobs when he was discovered by Gaul, who demanded to know why he wasn't enrolled in his culinary class.
"I used to do a monthly dinner at people's houses and one time I invited him and that's when we got to know each other," Gaul said. "I saw his talent. I've been doing this for a long time, so I said 'Alex, you need to do this.'"
The first competition Mayo entered was a citywide contest to see who could make the best gingerbread house. Mayo's rendering of the Eiffel Tower in gingerbread swept the competition, winning top honors in all three categories of people's choice, best in class and best of show.
"This gingerbread contest, okay, he drew a picture first, and the picture he drew, I would put in a frame and hang in my house," Gaul said. "And then, he duplicated that in a gingerbread form. It was just amazing."
By his junior year, when Mayo first started taking lessons from Gaul, the chef urged him to enter state competitions, where he could further show off his natural talent and earn some prestige. His biggest win that year was at the ProStart competition, where students are split into teams of three and instructed to design a menu, determine recipes, then prepare the dishes.
"We had to make up a menu, pricing and all that stuff, then we had to cook all of it, a three-course dinner," Mayo said.
The three-person team of Mayo, Rachel Simmons and Enrique Cadena went in not expecting much. They left with first place for the state.
"We actually went to the nationals in San Diego, hosted by Guy Fieri and taped by the Food Network," Mayo said. "It was really cool. We didn't place or anything, but then, we weren't expecting to win state, let alone nationals."
"These other schools always win the state competition," Gaul said. "And Kingman's never won, and they just gave it a great effort and just smoked everybody."
Last year, Mayo also snagged a gold medal at the Family Career and Community Leaders of America culinary arts competition, where three-person teams are required to split up and produce an appetizer, entrée and dessert.
"You don't know what you're cooking till you get there," Mayo said. "They just give you the ingredients and say, 'cook it.'"
Mayo returned to the FCCLA competition in Scottsdale on March 20 and took away a silver medal for his salad and pork chop dishes. Mayo noted that none of the nearly four dozen teams managed a gold this time around, since the medals are based on a points system, not placement.
"I actually ended up having to make two dishes this year because the person doing the appetizer dropped out at the last minute," he said.
Mayo also attended the Skills USA competition at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix April 13, where he took second place from among 44 contestants. Students were each required to make a salad of their choice, followed by a split pea soup, chicken stew and chicken and rice pilaf.
"That competition is based on just what it says, your skills: knife skills, sautéing, braising, reading skills - how to understand exactly what the recipe's trying to tell you to do," Mayo said. "The judges are going around and judging you constantly."
Mayo credits Gaul with most of what he knows. "Without this program, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," he said. "Eighty to 90 percent of what I know and what I can do is probably from this class."
But Gaul refuses to take credit for Mayo's achievements, adding that every chef puts a part of themselves into their work, and no two are exactly alike.
"You could give four chefs the same recipe and come up with four different dishes," Gaul said. "If the student wasn't interested- I mean, he has to do it. I just made the opportunity available to him. That's all I see my role as being."
Now that the season for competitions is mostly over, Mayo said he's currently focused on finishing up his remaining classwork before he begins the culinary program under chef Michael Harris at Mohave Community College's Bullhead City campus.
"I've worked with the chef there on catering before, and he's a good chef," Mayo said. "He used to work at Le Cordon Bleu (College of Culinary Arts) in Orlando, so he really knows his stuff."
After that, Mayo says he plans to transfer to Pima Community College in Tucson to finish his associate's degree before he begins an externship for a restaurant. After that, the sky's the limit, Gaul said.