James Merriweather, who plays second base for Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, wants his friends to think of him as being "as slick in the kitchen as I am on the field."
Wearing a frilly purple apron to protect his baseball uniform, the 17-year-old was one of about 85 students who stayed after school recently to create gourmet meals during the Catholic high school's weeklong cooking contest.
"This is the biggest function in La Puente," claimed home economics teacher Barbara Hansen.
The young chefs, half of whom are boys, are students in Hansen's "Foods and Nutrition" class, a two-semester elective course covering such topics as balanced nutrition, meal planning, shopping, unit pricing, entertaining, cooking, setting an attractive table and basic etiquette.
"To me, it's the most important class in school after religion, because they learn how to eat," Hansen said. "A lot of kids have never stepped into a kitchen."
The contest was Hansen's practical method of giving her three classes their final exams. She wanted to see whether her students had learned enough to cook tasty, attractive and nutritious meals.
The students, divided into groups of four, chose themes for their meals, which ranged from ethnic foods from countries including Mexico, Italy, France, Cuba and Poland to a traditional wedding and a "Sunny California" barbecue. Each group had to create a meal for four within a $20 budget.
After about a month's planning, the students prepared their dinners in the six complete kitchens in Hansen's large classroom.
"We're cutting avocados for a salad," said Cynthia Santoyo, 17, an 11th-grader involved in creating a Cuban feast of breaded flank steaks, avocado salad, beans, rice and dinner rolls.
Other groups' creations sent the smells of Mexican tostadas, Polish sausage, barbecued steak and even lobster through the air.
"We were planning on barbecuing outside," said Tom Bugbee, a tanned 16-year-old wearing a tank top and shorts that fit nicely into his group's "Sunny California" theme.
Unfortunately, the muggy afternoon included some rain, forcing Bugbee and his three male partners to bring their barbecue inside.
The students had to turn in a menu and show that their meals met the nutritional guidelines of the basic four food groups. They also had to submit a budget to prove they had made an inexpensive dinner.
After the meals were cooked and the tables were set, the judges, who included some of Hansen's former students and an English and a math teacher, sampled each group's presentation.
Each group was allowed to invite one guest. Invitees included parents, grandparents, a nun and the basketball coach.
After coach Alex Acosta had finished his chicken Kiev and a piece of wedding cake, he said he was impressed with the work of a group that included one of his players, guard Willie Wells, 17.
"After I found out what he can do, I'm going to have him cook the team meals for us," Acosta said.
At another table, Wanetia Smith of La Puente enjoyed a "traditional Polish peasant dinner" cooked by a group led by her granddaughter, Valarie Clark. Clark, 17, wearing a red T-shirt with "Polish Lover" emblazoned across the front, treated Smith to Polish sausage and pickles, sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread.
After five days of tasting, the judges selected "A Night in Rome" as the best meal. The table setting had a red, white and green color scheme to symbolize the Italian flag, and the table was surrounded by pictures of Rome.
Shirley Figueroa, whose daughter Cheryl helped create a meal to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, was impressed with her daughter but also enjoyed watching the boys in action.
"These boys are doing so well," she said.
Merriweather said he took the class because it sounded easy. After a year of study and cooking, he began enjoying his work.
"I thought it was going to be a kickback class, but I learned it was serious business," he said
The second baseman said he does not get too much ribbing from his teammates, who might think sweating in a hot kitchen is not as macho as sweating on a baseball field.
"At least I know how to make something more than grilled cheese," he said.