CLASS OF 2023: Oregon’s top culinary student loves the history behind food

This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.

Kaylee Peerenboom-Dominguez’s teachers are still talking about her mac and cheese almost two years later.

It’s a dish the graduating senior cooked during boot camp for the culinary program at Salem-Keizer’s Career Technical Education Center. Students were tasked with taking a box of macaroni and cheese and making it their own. Peerenboom-Dominguez and her team made a chicken pesto from scratch.

“It was the best tasting mac and cheese of the day. That’s what I remember,” said Austin Stinson, one of the program’s culinary instructors. “As we went through boot camp, I noticed that every time Kaylee was on a team with students, that team did really well. Wherever Kaylee was in the kitchen during boot camp, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t really need to worry about them cutting or burning themselves,” Stinson said.

Peerenboom-Dominguez, 18, is graduating from Sprague High School but has spent half of her junior and senior year at CTEC, taking culinary classes. Teachers skipped her ahead a year in the two-year culinary program based on her aptitude as a junior.

“I’ve never had a student who is graduating with the same passion, level of work ethic,” said culinary instructor Caroline Spaulding.

Peerenboom-Dominguez has a wide smile and is eager to talk about food, whether it’s the Russian dishes she likes to prepare, or the way culture and history have shaped what people eat across time. It’s something she’d like to study more, along with traveling to explore more culinary horizons.

“Anywhere you look in history, there’s food,” she said. She’s looked at recipes from the Great Depression, when people cooked water pie — a cheap, filling dish that stretches basic ingredients using water — or a cracker that used ration foods.

“I made it with my aunt. It’s as hard as a tile in my opinion … you bake it for like 12 hours,” Peerenboom-Dominguez said. “We ended up giving it to our bird. She had a hard time getting into it, but we gave it to her. She liked it.”

Her interest in cooking started at home, where she’d watch cooking competitions on TV with her mother and three siblings.

“It’s fun for us, something we could all agree on without arguing,” she said.

She began cooking for her family at 7, taking on responsibilities beyond her age to help her mother, who struggled with mental and physical health problems. Her aunt taught her to cook an over easy egg — her favorite type. Then she moved on to packaged ramen, and her dad’s recipe for hamburger gravy.

“I enjoyed it, seeing my family happy at the dinner table,” she said.

A youngest child, she spent more time with her mother than her older siblings.

“I was scared she was going to die. All the time. Even when I was four, I remember being worried about her not being there the next day, because she never really had the best health,” Peerenboom-Domniguez said. 

Her teachers praise her calm, kind personality, which she said came from not wanting to exacerbate her mother’s anxiety or depression.

Her mother died when she was 10, and Peerenboom-Dominguez’s father remarried. Peerenboom-Dominguez is matter-of-fact talking about her childhood — though she recognizes she went through a lot at a young age, it was normal for her, she said.

The family moved from McMinnville to Salem, where she joined choir.

“It kept my mind off things,” she said. “It was a fun thing, and I liked singing.” Musicals are her favorite, especially Hamilton.

In the culinary program, she’s found another home. 

“I can rely on chefs for anything. They’d be there in a heartbeat if one of us needed them,” she said.

Her instructors said she’ll stay late to clean up and ensure tasks are completed. She’s humble, but challenges herself — as when she used a class gingerbread house competition to construct a miniature Whoville out of pastry and gingerbread.

“That’s a big part of what makes Kaylee really special,” Spaulding said. “She’s just all heart and also just happens to be really talented and have a great sense of taste.”

This spring, Peerenboom-Dominguez was named Student of the Year for Oregon ProStart Championships, an annual competition hosted by the Oregon Hospitality Foundation for high school culinary programs. She and her classmates at CTEC finished the school year preparing food for the school’s end-of-year celebration, where the culinary program feeds several hundred students and teachers.

“Everyone is running around like a headless chicken,” she said, speaking in the days leading up to the barbecue. 

Peerenboom-Dominguez graduated on the anniversary of her mother’s death. 

She’s headed to the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute in Coos Bay. From there, she wants to attend the Culinary Institute of America for a bachelor’s degree in applied food studies.

“She’s just the full package and has been from that first day we met her,” Spaulding said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.