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A crowd of spectators looks on in anticipation, watching the clock tick down, urging the Wade Hampton High School senior to finish making her butternut squash and linguine with shrimp before time expires. Behind her, loudspeakers roar with the ’80s rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” and the sous-chef who helped her boil, bake, peel and sauté her way to this moment—Alex Jackson, former chef de cuisine at Sons & Daughters in San Francisco—is leading the crowd in an encouraging chant: “Sadie! Sadie!”

Jackson tries to lighten the mood, cracking jokes while he tears basil to garnish Hiltabidel’s dish. When emcee Jamarcus Gaston asks the team how it’s going, Jackson responds, “It’s controlled chaos!”

With the butternut squash in one pan, the shrimp in another, and the pasta in yet a third, Hiltabidel and Jackson hustle to combine all the elements on the plate. Jackson tosses the squash and pasta, doling out portions onto five plates. Hiltabidel places the shrimp on top, passing each dish back to Jackson, who cries, “Bam!” as he hits each mound with a finishing snowfall of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Gaston calls that time is up and leads the audience in an enthusiastic round of applause for Hiltabidel and her onstage competitor, William Stephenson, a senior at Mauldin High. Stephenson’s dish is a hoisin-glazed salmon with a brown rice and vegetable stir-fry, and he was assisted by Chef Brandon Jew, owner of Mr. Jiu’s in San Francisco—which ranks one Michelin star.

Relief lights up both students’ faces as they step down from the stage and present their dishes to the judges at last.

“This is going to be tough to judge,” says Joe Urban, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Greenville County Schools, as he eyes the plates. “The dishes from the first round were amazing, so these chefs had better bring it!”

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