Wantagh High School alumna Amanda Gray has baked her way to success: In June, Gray, 20, earned a collegiate-division first-place win at SkillsUSA’s 2021 National Leadership and Skills Conference, where she competed in commercial baking.
Gray, who graduated from Wantagh in 2019, is a junior at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where she majors in baking and pastry arts and food and beverage industry management.
She has taken part in SkillsUSA competitions since her senior year of high school. As a student, she also attended culinary classes at Nassau BOCES Barry Tech in Westbury. She had previously competed in SkillsUSA’s local and state competitions.
SkillsUSA serves middle school, high school and college students enrolled in training programs in trade, technical and service occupations. To qualify for the nationals, Gray had to win the state competition in Rhode Island earlier this year, where she baked cookies.
In the national commercial baking competition, the contestants had to make seven different treats — cakes, breads, muffins, cookies, pastry cream and a cream puff — while being filmed by two cameras from different angles. The competitors also had to photograph their desserts and complete a written baking exam online.
“We had to film ourselves making the products at every step, such as scaling the ingredients, mixing, putting them in the oven, rotating them and more,” Gray explained. “We had to show the proper sanitations, like washing your hands and cleaning the table.”
This year, the competitions were held virtually. To prepare, Gray and her family spent three days at JWU in June, working with chefs Christina and Mark Harvey, both teachers at the college. The Harveys specialize in training students for the competition. Christina, who has taught baking and pastry at JWU for 22 years, has been involved with SkillsUSA for nearly two decades as well.
“The judges were very happy, from what I heard,” Christina said of Gray and her baking ability “One of the judges said, ‘Oh my gosh, your student was dynamite this year.’”
Gray said she found the virtual competition easier than facing off in person. “Instead of being in a big room with a bunch of people, I was doing it on my own, which I felt like was less pressure,” she said. “It was easier to focus, and it felt like I was competing with myself to see the best that I could do.”
Gray started baking when she was young. Her family often hosted parties and brainstormed themed birthdays, her mother, Michele, recalled. Amanda’s father, Michael, prepared cakes that matched the themes, and Amanda assisted.
“Her father started to let her get involved with the baking and decorating because she thought it was so cool,” Michele said. “From that point on, she was always interested in it, and always talked about pursuing that.”
When Amanda was in high school, Michele encouraged her to enroll in the BOCES culinary program to see if baking was something she wanted to do in college. “The guidance counselors tried to steer her in a different direction, because they thought she would go to some fancy school because she was so smart,” Michele recounted. “She was very adamant that baking was what she wanted.”
Amanda said her favorite part of the SkillsUSA competition was the cake-decorating. The contestants had to bake an eight-inch cake and decorate it with flowers, writing and borders.
While she’s not sure of her post-college plans, Gray said she enjoyed baking cakes the most, and could see herself designing and decorating them in the future.
Her family, she said, has always offered a big support system. “My family always encouraged me, and they always supported me,” she said. “They always told me to ‘go ahead and do it.’ They helped me sign up for classes, and got me whatever baking equipment I needed.”
Michele said the family always pushed Amanda to pursue her dreams. “We saw how much she loved [baking],” her mother said. “She was the type of child who always put everything into whatever she wanted to do.”