dnakaso@mercurynews.com

SUNNYVALE -- At the start of their teenage cooking contest Saturday, two of the three young chefs sliced open their fingers with their new, professionally sharpened knives and the third slipped in the kitchen and hit the deck, launching a strainer full of mushrooms into the air.

"When there's money on the line, there's pressure," said Nash Palafox of Aptos, a student at Santa Cruz's Harbor High School who slipped and fell during the first test of knife, safety and other skills at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California -- Silicon Valley, a campus of Argosy University.

At right, Nash Palafox, 17, prepares his dishes at the Best Teen Chef and Culinary Scholarship competition at the International Culinary School of the Art
At right, Nash Palafox, 17, prepares his dishes at the Best Teen Chef and Culinary Scholarship competition at the International Culinary School of the Art Institute of California -Silicon Valley, in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Saturday, Mar. 8, 2014. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group) ( LiPo Ching )

The annual "Best Teen Chef" competition pitted three of the institute's incoming students against each other for the chance to win a $4,000 scholarship and possibly go on to a national teen competition April 15 in New York to compete in a "Chopped-style" competition at the Food Network's headquarters for $40,000.

Unlike the Food Network's high-stress, television cooking competitions, Saturday's event was meant to nourish the teenagers' love of food, not bring them to tears.

"We're not here to scare them," said Alicia Paullin, director of the institute's culinary program. "We want them to show their passion for what they're doing and show their understanding of the recipes."

There weren't any bizarre mystery ingredients or abusive chefs for the kids to deal with. And they already had undergone a run-through of kitchen fundamentals at the institute before going home for two weeks to work on the two recipes they were required to make Saturday: two servings of shrimp cocktail and two plates of sautéed chicken breast with rice pilaf, fresh sautéed broccoli and a "creative garnish" of their choosing.

While the recipes might seem basic, Paullin said, there were plenty of opportunities for mistakes.

"Shrimp cocktail sounds simple, but it's actually a long process," Paullin said. "We want to see how they handle the shrimp and poach it and make the sauce."

After they were outfitted with new chef coats and knife kits, Palafox, Christian Olivarez of Watsonville High School and Richelle Periandri of San Jose's Branham High School -- all 17-year-old seniors -- had only 30 minutes to show off their knife skills in a "mise en place" competition that required them to chop parsley, concassé tomatoes, onions, garlic and mushrooms and present them to two faculty judges, who were also scoring them on things such as kitchen sanitation -- and safety.

Olivarez drove a knife through his left thumb while mincing his garlic, and Periandri cut her left ring finger, then later burned her opposite ring finger on a hot pot.

"The knife got me," Periandri said. "It's a little stressful."

Only Palafox, one of the primary cooks in his family of 10, got every ingredient onto his tray.

"At the level they're at right now, that's pretty typical," said culinary instructor Mike Osborn, who was helping judge the food preparation portion of the competition.

Then they had two hours to cook and plate their chicken dishes and shrimp cocktails for three other culinary instructors serving as judges, who did not get to see how the dishes were put together.

For Olivarez, Periandri and Palafox, Saturday's competition was just the beginning of the pressure they'll be under to prepare food properly -- and on time -- at the institute, which offers accredited bachelor of science and associate of science degrees in culinary management and culinary arts, respectively.

"It's part of the real deal in the real world," said instructor Ty Turner who was helping judge the finished dishes. "It's all about timing. They should be working on these skills every single day. You don't want to have the food come out late and have the bride refuse to pay a $10,000 bill."

Palafox had the opposite problem.

He was supposed to serve his plates second, but finished 35 minutes early and had to put his chicken dish in a warmer, waiting for Olivarez to serve first.

"Hopefully the chicken stays moist," Palafox said.

As he waited, Palafox suddenly realized that he had only plated one shrimp cocktail, so the extra time allowed him to create a second one.

"In every class, we instill time management," Paullin said. "From day one, they have to create a food list, an equipment list and a timeline."

In the adjacent dining room, the instructor judges called Olivarez' plate "below average."

The chicken and rice pilaf were both under-cooked, and the shrimp tasted like it had been frozen, instead of being poached in a flavorful broth.

As the judges finished their critique next door, Olivarez packed up his knives in the kitchen, wishing he could have done it all differently.

"It was challenging, tiring and stressful," he said. "I would have done everything better."

The judges thought Palafox's dishes were "slightly better," instructor-judge Ray Lefeber said.

Palafox's purée was too thick, Lefeber said, the rice was under-cooked and the chicken was dry, as if it had sat around a while, which it had.

Without knowing his chicken had been in a warmer and the shrimp had been in a chiller for several minutes, the judges gave Palafox credit for presenting a chicken dish on a warm plate and shrimp cocktail in a chilled glass.

The judges were pleased when Periandri's shrimp cocktail arrived with an added flourish of a sliced lemon on top of her glass, topped with a sliced half shrimp that represented "a definite wow factor," said instructor-judge Lewis Brown.

The sauce with Periandri's chicken was "developed," Brown said, but the chicken was "obviously overcooked." And while her rice pilaf had a nice flavor profile, the rice was simultaneously crunchy and mushy and therefore not properly cooked.

Overall the tasting judges were divided whether they liked Palafox' dishes or Periandri's better.

But when the points were totaled from the students' entire day's performance in the kitchen, Periandri walked away with the $4,000 scholarship. She'll have to wait to see if her scores from Saturday hold up against the winners from 40 other Art Institute culinary students to see whether she'll get a chance to compete in New York.

Palafox got the second prize scholarship of $1,000.

Periandri, who was raised by a single dad who never went to college, called the $4,000 scholarship to the Art Institute critical to her culinary education.

"For me, this is really exciting," she said. "I'm extremely grateful."

Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.