We’re counting down the weeks until ACF National Convention: Orlando with an in-depth introduction to each of our award candidates. First up are our regional pastry chef champs!
Not registered yet? Call us at (904) 484-0506 to speak with an events team member now. Onsite registration will also be available.
If you can’t make it this year, we’ll have coverage of all the competitions streaming live on Facebook, and don’t forget to register for Conference On-Demand to see recorded sessions of all our Main Stage speakers!
Northeast: Nguyet Nguyen
After arriving in the U.S. in 1992, Nguyet Nguyen dedicated herself to learning English and assimilating into U.S. culture. An early attempt to fit in by bringing chicken nuggets to a school social quickly earned her the nickname “Nugget.” Rather than viewing this as a negative, Nguyen embraced her new nickname and later used the experience as the basis for an award-winning essay.
It didn’t take long for her persistence to pay off as Nguyen earned scholarships to both Johnson County Community College (JCCC) and the University of Kansas (KU). While at KU, Nguyen’s artistic talents led her to question her future as a premed major. After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Human Biology, Nguyen made the decision to exchange her lab coat for a chef’s jacket. She returned to JCCC and enrolled in their respected culinary program. The combination of the precision of science and the creative freedom of art made Nguyen fall in love with pastry, to which she committed herself wholeheartedly.
As Nguyen’s skills developed, so did her competitive spirit. She competed on JCCC’s culinary team first as the pastry chef and later as captain. Her competitive nature has resulted in several medals in various American Culinary Federation culinary competitions including the 2010 Central Region Pastry Chef of the Year.
Since graduating from JCCC, Nguyen has continued developing her skills through a variety of different pastry positions. She has worked at 40 Sardines Restaurant and the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City. In 2010 Nguyen accepted the position of Assistant Pastry Chef at Houston Country Club, where she worked alongside award winning pastry chef Jeffrey Guy for two years. As she continued working at several independent restaurants in Houston, Nguyen opened her own catering service called Nougat’s Desserts before spending a year and half at the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande, FL.
Nguyen is currently the executive pastry chef at the Philadelphia Country Club.
West: Kurt Lechner, CEPC
Lechner was born in the wine region in a small town called St. Leonhard of lower Austria in 1961. After high school he took on an apprenticeship, studying and learning the art of baking and pastry in the small Austrian town of Neunkirchen. There, he honed in on his love for the craft of baking and pastry.
Lechner finished my Journeyman degree as a Baker and Confectioner in 1980, then moved to Vienna, Austria to pursuit his profession. After two years, he went back to the Master school in Vienna to become a Master Pastry Chef (Konditormeister). In May 1984, Lechner finished the Master school and successfully passed the master pastry chef degree exam, and was awarded the title of Master Pastry Chef.
1985, he and his wife Karin moved to the United States where he further pursued my career as a Baker and Pastry Chef in Salt Lake City. After years in Salt Lake City, they then relocated to San Diego, California, where Lechner worked as the head baker and pastry chef for the catering department of the Hilton hotel. He moved on to become the pastry chef and manager in the bakeshop at San Diego State University for the next 12 years. In 2008, Lechner got the opportunity to teach at the Art Institute of California – San Diego, where he still teaches and spreads knowledge to his students.
(Editor’s Note: Chef Lechner has withdrawn from the Pastry Chef of the Year competition.)
Southeast: Melinda Wilkins, CEPC
Pastry Chef Melinda Wilkins has been a Baking and Pastry and Culinary Arts Instructor as Stratford University, Virginia Beach Campus since 2016. Wilkins is a 2003 graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. She has an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry and a Bachelor’s Degree for Hospitality Management and has also earned her Certified Executive Pasty Chef title from the American Culinary Federation in 2014.
During her career, Wilkins has worked for many talented chefs, including as an Executive Pastry Chef for E-Brands in Las Vegas; opening David Burke’s “Modern Cuisine” restaurant and taking over Aqua Knox restaurant simultaneously.
Wilkins honed her skills when first moving to Las Vegas in 2004 and opening the Wynn Resort and working for five-star, five-diamond, one-Michelin Star Chef Alessandro Stratta. Wilkins moved to Virginia Beach in 2009 and served as the Executive Pastry Chef at Terrapin Restaurant from 2009-2011.
Her experience qualifies her to teach sections of artisan bread, cakes, custards and creams, specialty and wedding cakes, plated desserts, confections, chocolate arts, sugar arts and fundamentals of baking.
Central: Ryse Swanson
Ryse Swanson has been creating pastries at Walnut Creek Country Club in South Lyon, Michigan, since 2010. As pastry chef, she manages pastry production for the restaurant outlets, banquets and offsite special events. In addition, Swanson’s custom cakes, cookies, and pastries are in demand for all occasions.
In 2006, Swanson was working toward a master’s degree in architectural design, when the industry shift in building design moved from handmade models and drawings to 3D computer renderings. Hands-on appeals to Swanson, and at that point, she decided to pursue a culinary degree at Oakland Community College (OCC), where her passion for art and design were rejuvenated through pastry arts.
While attending OCC, Swanson found a new passion: carving. Anything that could be carved was fair game — ice, pumpkins, fruit, cake, etc. She competed in ice carving, where she won 11 silver and three bronze National Ice Carving Association (NICA) medals, and was also half of the first all-female ice carving team to win the NICA National Collegiate Ice Carving Championship title in 2012. Prior to Walnut Creek Country Club (WCCC), Swanson honed her kitchen skills, working in several restaurants in the Metro Detroit area.
Outside the WCCC kitchen, Swanson can be found at home with her 18-month-old daughter, Maisie, and husband Rob. She still carves whenever she gets the chance and takes considerable pride in her “biodegradable art.” Her newest adventures have taken her around the country, carving 1,100-pound pumpkins and 80-pound blocks of cheese.
Military: Samantha Poe
SSG Samantha Poe was born and raised in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Kennett High School in Kennett, Missouri in 2005. Poe attended college at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky and graduated in 2007 with two Associates Degrees, one in Culinary Arts and one in Baking and Pastry Arts. Prior to joining the United States Army she held Pastry Chef positions at:
- Seelbach Hotel, Louisville, KY
- Limestone Restaurant, Louisville, KY
- Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, WI
She married Christopher Poe in 2011 and had a daughter, Margaret Ann, in August 2016.
On May 31, 2011, Poe enlisted in the United States Army as a Food Service Specialist. She has been stationed at the Army Executive Dining Facility at the Pentagon and Enlisted Aide to the Army Chief of Staff since September 2014.
Poe participated in the World Culinary Olympics 2012 in Germany as a pastry apprentice. She won Armed Forces Chef of the year in 2015, Army Enlisted Aide of the Year in 2016 and pastry Best in Show in 2018.
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