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From left, Chef Philip Cragg, Devin Plenderleith, Chef Vincent Tedeschi and Chef Joe Sheridan posed for a photo after Plendleith won the Nathan Schwartz Award as the top graduate in his class at the Academy of Culinary Arts.

Devin Plenderleith has been a Somers Point resident for 10 years, but for the past few years, he has been strictly in the kitchen.

On Dec. 19, more than 40 new chefs and baking and pastry students received culinary certificates from the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College. Based on grade-point averages and criteria established by the American Culinary Federation, graduates were honored with gold, silver or bronze medals. That night, Plenderleith took the gold.

"Good grades were not always something that I strived for. In high school, I was average to below average," Plenderleith, who graduated from Chatham High School in North Jersey, said.

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Plenderleith ended the three-semester hot-food culinary program as valedictorian and winner of the Nathan Schwartz Award, an honor presented to the top student of each graduating class. For Plenderleith, 32, it was a good way to end his time in the classroom.

"It was definitely an honor to be No. 1 in my class. It shows what happens when you show up and do your work."

For Plenderleith's chef educator, Vincent Tedeschi - a full-time faculty member for 13 years - his student did more than show up and complete his work.

Tedeschi had Plenderleith in the classroom for only one course, the introduction to garde manger, he said. However, his performance impressed Tedeschi enough to recommend his work to friends at local restaurants.

"I noticed his talent. He exceeded in a lot of the classes that he took that I saw," Tedeschi said. "As an educator, we walk around to other's classes to see the students as they progress."

With Tedeschi's help, Plenderleith landed a position at the high-end Stone Harbor restaurant, Jay's On Third.

"He worked there all summer long. He had a really great experience," Tedeschi said.

Plenderleith had spent time in his younger years working in pizza places and other restaurants-and he knew instantly that he was where he belonged.

"Ever since I took my first kitchen job as a dishwasher as a teenager, I knew I would be in the restaurant industry," he said.

And upon graduation, Tedeschi had a conversation with Plenderleith about working for another friend's restaurant - Fuze in Avalon - for the start of its summer opening.

"I think he likes that route, working the higher-end, mom-and-pop places," Tedeschi said, noticing his student's experience build and his culinary tastes develop. Plenderleith's job choices have focused on quality and culinary artistic ability, he added.

For now, Plenderleith is working on getting as much positive experience in the field as he can - even if that means pleasing his family and friends with his cooking.

"I love cooking at home," he said. "It's fun to cook and eat with the people you are feeding and watch them hopefully enjoy your food."

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