All eyes are on the Natural, who’s arranging tomato skins into little roses with the tip of his knife. All eyes, that is, except for those of the cooks around him, who for the sake of their nerves pretend Jeffrey Reece doesn’t exist.

“He’s very focused,” says John Reece, Jeffrey’s father. “He wants this pretty bad.” John Reece, too, wants “this”—a shot at a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Washington’s culinary program—pretty bad. “It’s all I can do to keep from [breaking] into tears, that’s how emotional I am,” the dad says.

John Reece sits in a lounge among other nail-chewing parents at the national semifinals of the fourth “Best Teen Chef in America” contest sponsored by the nation’s 29 Art Institutes. Their children, high-school seniors all, have the morning to prepare a menu of shrimp cocktail, rice pilaf, broccoli, and chicken chasseur.

“Forty-seven cents of every American dollar spent is spent in restaurants,” says Beverly Bonebrake, Jeffrey’s cooking instructor at Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown, Md. “A good, hardworking chef doesn’t have to worry about a job.” Jeffrey fits that description, she says. He helps cook 400 meals a day for his school’s student body; he staffs the salad, bakery, and fry stations at the local Texas Road House; he watches the Food Network when he’s not cooking.

Now Jeffrey is carving lemons into little baskets, attaching parsley bouquets to their “handles.” His prep bowls overflow with mushroom wedges, chopped parsley, skinned tomatoes. He rolls up lettuce leaves into cigars and slices away at them, mouth open in concentration.

Among the chefs wander the Art Institute’s student helpers, moving pans and cleaning dishes. They’re not allowed to offer any guidance—which can be frustrating. “That girl put her pilaf in the oven but didn’t turn the oven on,” says helper Caroline Donaghy. “I was [thinking], I can’t tell you, but it’s not going to cook like that.”

Jeffrey has begun to transform his onion. He makes deep cuts around its circumference, then mashes it down into a jellyfish shape and lops off its “tentacles.”

Kelly Washam, another student helper, likes Jeffrey’s garnishes but says inventiveness won’t win the day. “It’s really cool, but…you have to do what’s on the recipe.” Jeffrey is missing points for other things, she says, including the condition of his cooking pot. “When you let water boil in a pan for that long, all the minerals grasp onto the side of the pan and turn it black.”

In the end, Jeffrey comes in second. The dark-horse winner is Kiersten Powell, a student at Virginia’s Gloucester High School who has spent the cook-off quietly mincing garlic in the corner. “This is my first competition ever, so I was, like, super-nervous,” she says.

Powell will go to the finals this May in New York City. If she wins there, she’ll face a new set of challenges back in D.C. Last year’s regional winner attended the Art Institute on partial scholarship—but he was young, says Donaghy, and he liked to party. “He was really good at what he does…but he just started drinking; he didn’t want to come to class, didn’t go to Sanitation.” He’s working in a hotel now, she says. In Cleveland. —John Metcalfe