Pullinzi wins national culinary title
A 2009 graduate of Williamsville East High School, Pullinzi won first place at the National SkillsUSA Culinary competition in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday.
Trained through the Harkness Career Center's culinary program, Pullinzi beat out 42 contestants, and not only took first place in the nation but also won a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"I'm still speechless," she said Monday when asked about what winning the scholarship means.
The Amherst Bee printed a profile on Pullinzi in April after she was named the state winner of the SkillsUSA culinary competition.
"I'm going to practice like crazy; I'm determined to win it," she said at the time.
And she did just that.
After receiving the menu a week before the contest, she practiced twice a day with Harkness instructor Scott Steiner.
There was very little she could do to alter the menu or give it her own touch. In the salad and soup categories she was allowed some liberties, and one of her decisions proved to be a winner.
Each student was told to make a vegetable and chicken soup with the allowance of one additional ingredient.
"Micro-herb gnocchi," she said, identifying her secret ingredient. "I thought, 'What could make me stand out?" and I'm Italian, so gnocchi came to mind."
Judges voted her soup the best among the group.
When it came time for the two main dishes — breaded chicken breast with vegetables in various sauces and rice pilaf, as well as poached salmon with parsley potatoes, tomato and zucchini with a warm dill Hollandaise sauce — Pullinzi said she had to stick to the recipe.
Students were judged on a variety of categories, including uniform, presentation, posture and sanitation.
"They looked at everything," she said about the judging.
The cooking competition was held Thursday, but Pullinzi had to wait until the awards ceremony on Friday to know if she had won.
"It was a three-hour ceremony, and culinary was last. They called third, then second place, and then there was a minute pause. I was sitting there and I heard 'Nnnn,' they called Nia and I started screaming," she said.
It was the thrill of victory and the joy of security. Pullinzi said she can now focus on cooking and the food when she attends Culinary Institute of America and not worry about how to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars after graduation.
"I was confident, determined to win, I practiced so hard, I knew I needed this," she said.
She thanked Steiner, who also traveled to Kansas City, for being an "amazing" teacher and opening many doors for her.
Pullinzi returned to Amherst on Saturday and attended East's graduation on Sunday.
During the ceremony, Neal Miller, principal at East, announced she had won the national title just days before.
"Everyone stood up and started clapping," she said.
As a recent high school graduate, Pullinzi was asked the common question: what are you going to do this summer?
"Well, not working," she said with a laugh, quickly adding that she will be spending time with her family and friends before leaving for Hyde Park.
With her recent victory, Pullinzi is eligible to compete in the world competition in Paris in two years. She said she'll wait and see how studying goes before deciding.
With a "life changing" victory now just part of her high school memories, Pullinzi said she feels like a thousand pounds have been lifted from her shoulders as she looks to the future.