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By E. Thomas Hall

Ever thought that life is more interesting in school than on any of the popular “reality TV” shows? Student Derek Heim is a survivor of both real worlds.

Featured on the Food Network’s “Cooking School Stories” series, Heim goes to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. The documentary-style cable TV show looks at how students handle the pressure of attending a top culinary school.

The first episode focused on Heim, now 21, who’ll graduate with a degree in management next year. Like the stars of MTV’s “The Real World” and other series, Heim quickly got used to having cameras follow him around.

“In the beginning, it was a lot of fun and very interesting,” he says. “As time went by, there were a lot of questions and curious students asking me all about it. With all the attention, though, who could pass it up? It was definitely something I could get used to.”

Lights, camera … ulcer?

So what if he wasn’t stranded on a tropical island, like on “Survivor.” For Heim, the experience was like being “stranded in a kitchen!” he exclaims. The first season centered around the international cuisine class taught by chef Adrian Barber, who chairs SkillsUSA’s national culinary arts championships.

Before filming began, the student body was already buzzing about the show and its premise. The university later announced that Barber’s class fit the profile the production company wanted. “There were many students interviewed, and I was chosen on the basis of my experiences and personal traits,” Heim says.

For his part, Heim, a former SkillsUSA national treasurer, wasn’t nervous at all. “With all the training I received as a national officer, nervousness was not in my mind,” he emphasizes. “I was more anxious and excited and eager to make the opportunity last as long as I could.”

That’s amazing, considering that the show was shot during the final class of the trimester, which would determine whether he would graduate the next week.

And not only that, he had to go on first. How did it feel, being featured in the premiere? “I couldn’t have been more proud and honored to be the first person to lead this show off,” he says. “It was like I was leading the precedent for the remainder of the show.”

Not that it was all a piece of cake. Publicity for the series pointed out that he was determined … but also had an ulcer.

“I’ve had problems with my stomach since the age of 13 and mostly due to the amount of stress and pressure I place upon myself,” Heim acknowledges. “I dealt with the stress on a day-by-day basis. Most of the time I convinced myself that this would all benefit me in the end.” He drew on his SkillsUSA officer training “to help guide me though this experience.”

The first episode focused on this personal drive and the pressure it created during a team assignment to prepare exotic foods from Spain and Morocco.

But Heim points out, “My demand for perfection basically has helped me to succeed in my food career, on the basis that I apply strong values and goals within my work. I expect the best of myself and of my product.”

He and fellow students received the score of five stars for their paella, a dish containing rice, meat, seafood and vegetables. “We worked well as a team, researched our item and prepared a plate presentation that was appealing and brilliant,” he adds.

Heim, who appeared in the remaining shows of the first season, was in front of the camera again recently. The cable network is shooting a special to show viewers where the first five “Cooking School” students are now. The original episodes, followed by a new season at The Art Institute of Los Angeles, are scheduled to air early next year.

While finishing his degree program, Heim works as an aquatics director at a Boys and Girls Club, a job he enjoys. Single, he shares a Fall River, Mass., condo with best friend and fellow national officer Cyra Hathaway.

And he’s thinking about his career options once school is over — options possibly shaped by his star turn. “I’m hoping to someday make a career out of this television thing,” he says, “or go into teaching at a vocational school.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2002 | Volume 36, No. 4
Copyright ©2002 SkillsUSA. All rights reserved.

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