BY KAYLA LOKEINSKY
In a flurry of flour, clad in her chef hat, the young baker whisks her creamy confection in the midst of a culinary battle. Her hands move at lightning speed, kneading dough with nimble fingers, hardly pausing as she moves from one kitchen task to the next. The tension at her kitchen station is as thick as the icing in her mixing bowl, but nothing can stop this culinary master as she plows her way through each challenge, racing against the clock as she trains for her upcoming competition. From filling pastries to prepping piping bags, it seems as if this baking prodigy is moving a mile a minute, juggling tasks that would make chefs twice her age quiver in their aprons. For Cooper City High School senior Ashlinn Somma, baking competitions are just one stop on her way to the top of the culinary world.
Somma is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill high school student. She is a culinary artist, baking everything from simple loaves of bread to elaborate cakes and decadent pastries. Somma got her start at baking just like most little girls: with her easy bake oven.
“I’ve been baking ever since I was ten years old,” Somma said. “I used my easy bake oven to make cookies and little cakes. My family used to call me Betty Crocker when I first started.”
As Somma’s love for baking grew, so did her talent. She evolved from baking with pre-packaged mixes to baking from scratch by the time she was in high school. Then, through word of mouth, she heard about the Sheridan Technical Center (STC) in Hollywood, Florida. As a Broward County Public School, STC offers postsecondary workforce development programs, including a successful culinary arts and commercial food training program. Upon entering the program, she was instantly dedicated, spending four hours there each day working on her craft.
“Instead of having a first and second hour, I go to Sheridan Tech,” Somma said. “It’s definitely the hardest class I take, but also my favorite.”
After training at STC for a few months, Somma was persuaded to enter the Skills USA Baking and Pastry Competition, a culinary competition for high-school students in the field of baking and pastry, which took place at the Miami Lakes Educational Center this past January. However, entering a serious competition like this was no “cake walk”; Somma put everything she knew into her biggest culinary challenge yet. Preparing for these competitions, Somma had to work on her speed in the kitchen, as well as her precision. Just as a runner trains for a marathon, Somma trains for baking competitions, which are just as exhausting and challenging. She practiced the order she would prepare the components of her competition to best utilize the short time she would be given to bake. Her training is arduous, but entirely worthwhile.
“I go to Sheridan Technical Center from 7-10 every morning during the week,” Somma said. “But I don’t go through the morning lectures like the rest of the class. I get sent right to the kitchen to practice, and my teacher times me every day to see if my speed has improved. I am also not allowed to talk to anyone while I’m baking because I have to stay focused.”
The Skills USA Baking and Pastry Competition is one of the most grueling baking competitions due to the simple fact that there are so many components to it. This baking battle requires skill, speed, and sheer talent. As soon as Somma entered the site of her first bake-off, she immediately felt out of her element. But it was her confidence and her hunger to win that kept her going through the challenges she faced.
“When you’re baking in a kitchen with unfamiliar equipment, you don’t know whether or not everything is going to go right,” Somma said. “When I saw the other competitors doing the parts of the competition in a different order than I did, it made me nervous because I thought I was doing something wrong. I just needed to believe in myself and do my best.”
For the competition, Somma was required to bake bread in three different shapes, chocolate chip scones, elephant ear pastries, and two fruit pastries, as well as decorate a three-tiered cake. Not only do all these desserts have to be made entirely from scratch, but Somma had to race against the clock, and finish all of these components in three and a half hours. However, even with the limited time and extreme pressure, it didn’t stop the talented Somma from coming out on top.
“When the judge called the third place winner,” Somma said. “I started crying because I thought I had lost for sure. Then the judge said ‘And now, in first place, although I’m sure she already knows it, Miss Nervous, Ashlinn Somma.’ I started hysterically crying. I couldn’t believe I won.”
With her win, Somma saw a whole new side of baking that she had never seen before. The fact that she was able to bake in a competitive environment, under difficult circumstances and in an unfamiliar kitchen speaks highly of her not only as a baker, but as a person. Not just anyone can enter their first competition and bring home a win. By winning the Skills USA Baking and Pastry Competition, it lit a fire inside Somma; a desire to succeed and prove to not only the world, but to herself, that she was a talented baker.
“I can honestly say that attending Sheridan Tech has been one of the best things to happen in my life,” Somma said. “The chefs there have opened their hearts to me and have been willing to teach me all that they know, and the best feeling is knowing that they want me to succeed. I know I did them proud by winning the competition, and it has been an honor and privilege to be able to be a part of their baking program.”
Somma’s win made her decide that she wants to continue baking in competitions. She is a killer in the kitchen, a culinary genius, and was a force to be reckoned with going into her next competition.
“On May 2nd I competed for a college scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York,” Somma said. “For this competition, I needed to bake bread into four different shapes, chocolate chip scones, sugar cookies into three different shapes, cinnamon rolls, and decorate a cake from scratch and all in three and a half hours. I came in first place, and won a much needed scholarship to the school of my dreams.”
However, with all this training and constant preparation for her baking competitions, Somma has had to sacrifice some normal teenage experiences in order to achieve her dream. By missing so much of the school day by being at Sheridan Tech, it’s not surprising that Somma sometimes feels left out of the high school loop. Although she may not be the average high school student, Somma knows that by devoting so much time to baking competitions she is securing her future in baking.
“I never regret anything,” Somma said. “Devoting as much time as I do to these competitions has helped to develop my skills in the kitchen. Also, if I didn’t spend so much time practicing and perfecting my baking, I wouldn’t be able to go into the competitions with my head held high knowing that I’m capable of winning.”
Winning her last baking competition meant more to Somma than any other because the scholarship she won is to the same college that she will be attending after she graduates. Somma has been accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, a world-renowned cooking college located in New York, and will be majoring in baking and pastry arts. Somma is the only student from Cooper City High School to be attending the university this fall.
“Getting into the Culinary Institute of America was a dream come true,” Somma said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. Getting in is the first step to becoming a professional baker and owning my own bakery one day.”
Somma’s love for the art of baking is what has led her to her culinary success. By pursuing her dreams she has proven to everyone that she is someone to be taken seriously as a food artist. Her delicate baking techniques combined with the brute force of her determination have made her the baker that she is today, and the professional culinary master that she will no doubt be in the future.
“The satisfaction that I get from creating something completely from scratch and designing and decorating my desserts the way that I want gives me so much joy.” Somma said, “Being in the kitchen baking is my escape from everything else, and it’s where I feel the most comfortable. I think that being able to bring a smile to someone’s face, while also satisfying their tummies is the greatest reward that I could ask for.”
As time ticks away, the aroma coming from Somma’s baking station is nothing short of heavenly. One by one, she pulls out pans filled with decadent desserts and irresistible indulgences. Bent over her work, like an artist with a painting, Somma doesn’t stop working until the clock runs out. Nearly exhausted, covered in icing and flour, she looks as if she has been through a battle. However, her cake is a masterpiece, her pastries works of art, and all of her desserts are to die for. It is no secret that Ashlinn Somma is Cooper City’s very own cake boss.