Whenever culinary arts teacher Tim Norwood asks beginning students to list their favorite foods, their typical responses are pizza, french fries and cheeseburgers.
Two years ago, a student seated in the front row of Norwood's classroom at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center answered, "foie gras."
"I knew right then that this kid would work out fine," Norwood said.
Norwood nominated that student, Chad Little, for a state award.
Tonight, the Restaurant Association of Maryland will name Little, 17, a senior at the Westminster school, its Student of the Year. The Westminster resident beat out about 30 nominees for the honor.
"I love cooking in general, and I love learning new things and trying new techniques," Little said. "I really enjoy everything about cooking. It's my life."
His classmates did not initially share his passion, but he said he has been able to educate a few palates.
"Most of them didn't know what foie gras was," he said. "Then, when I said it was enlarged goose liver, I heard a loud eew. But now a lot of them try different things - and they like my creme brulee."
Little, who will graduate from Westminster High School in June, has spent two years under Norwood's tutelage and nearly as much time interning at Baldwin's Station in Sykesville, one of the area's signature restaurants.
He mans the grill, cooking meats to diners' specifications. He also likes to prepare seafood, and counts shrimp and crab tarts among his specialties.
"He really is learning through doing," said Baldwin's executive chef, Bryan Sullivan. "He can cook most of what is on the menu and is very knowledgeable about meats and temperatures."
Little snowboards, tinkers with old cars and devours cookbooks and culinary magazines in his spare time.
But he rarely cooks for his mother, saying he usually isn't home long enough to prepare a full-course meal. If he gets a chance, he likes to steam crabs, and on occasion he will go all-out for French cuisine.
"The French have really honed cooking techniques," he said. "They just have a particular way of doing things that make them the best."
He has moved from culinary arts class to the school's research program. He maintains an A average, helps operate the center's cafe, works several shifts at Baldwin's and volunteers to cook for community service projects.
"With Chad, it has always been, 'What else can I learn?'" Norwood said. "And, because Chad pioneered the way, Baldwin's has become a great partner for us. "
Stewart Dearie, owner of Baldwin's Station, praised Little's work ethic and education. The experience has encouraged him to hire several other interns from the technology center. On weekend shifts, Little helps prepare entrees for more than 200 diners.
"Chad came to us with 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' and has worked hard and stayed focused," Dearie said. "Those are traits you don't learn in school. He was brought up that way."
The young chef credits his teachers, both at school and at work.
"I would never be part of this without school," Little said of the award that he will receive at the Marriott Waterfront hotel in Baltimore. "School has provided me with job opportunities and helped me with skills. Once I got involved, I learned so much."
Little hopes to continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. The award, sponsored by the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, the teaching arm of the restaurant association, makes him eligible for two scholarships, said Marshall Weston, the foundation's executive vice president.
About 1,200 students are enrolled in culinary and restaurant management courses in high schools throughout the state. Their teachers nominated about 30 of them for the award, and the foundation selected the winner, based on the students' academic and extracurricular work.
Little, who helped cater last year's gala dinner, volunteered to return to the kitchen for tonight's event.
"He wanted to cook, but we insisted he get dressed up and enjoy the evening," Weston said.
So Little, accompanied by his mother, Cynthia, and sister, Netia Little, will be on stage before about 700 guests tonight in a coat and tie instead of his favorite chef's uniform and hat.
Norwood said he will miss his star student, but he said he knows he "will be eating at Chad Little's restaurant one day."