Imagine answering a call from an unknown number and finding Chef Daniel Boulud on the other end. It was a moment Mark Garcia says he’ll never forget: “It was June 15, two days after my 23rd birthday, and I was eating dinner with my mom. I said, ‘Hello, who is this?’ And the caller says, ‘This is Chef Daniel Boulud.’ And, I instantly just stood up.”

That was the first of many times in recent months when Chef Garcia found himself stepping up to a momentous event. Chef Boulud was calling to tell Garcia he had been selected to compete in one of four Young Chef Competitions hosted by the ment’or BKB Foundation. An aspirational group numbering just 16 are chosen to compete. In taking home the first-place award at the Chicago competition, Chef Garcia received a $10,000 cash prize and the opportunity to stagier at the restaurant of his choice.

How did you become involved in the Young Chef Competition?

I was interested in it for over a year because I’d seen it promoted on social media, and I’d gotten into cooking competitions in college. (Chef Garcia graduated from SUNY Delhi in December, with a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts management.)

Did you enjoy culinary competitions?

Yes! At first I thought it was redundant, to work with the same ingredients over and over, to make the same dish over and over to perfect it. But as time went on, I realized it’s not about repeating the dish until you get it perfect; it’s about learning to manage your time. Because in cooking, that’s really important. You can have a great meal, but if the timing is off, it won’t leave the same impression on your guests. The cooking competitions helped with my cooking skills, becoming more organized, and becoming a lot cleaner than I was in the beginning.

What did you learn from participating in the competitions?

The Young Chef Competition put things into perspective for me, and helped me understand what the standard of excellence is. Cooking isn’t a solo process; you need your team. I don’t think any chef can say he’s gotten to where he is without the help of great mentors. And, what I’ve learned from the Young Chef Competition especially—the three chefs and their Commis who I was competing against—they were competition during that time window, but after that, they are hard-working, aspiring chefs. These are the people we’ll be encountering for the rest of our lives. They have that same drive to succeed that motivates me. And I learned that cooking is about one thing: making people happy.

What would you tell other young chefs?

Don’t be afraid. Every time I step into a kitchen, I get butterflies in my stomach, and I know it’s because I care. But now I’ve made some mistakes, I’ve burnt brioche and overcooked foie gras. Now, I would say: Just keep pushing yourself; don’t be afraid to try new things; and always ask questions.

Where do you see yourself in six or nine months?

I met Chef Gavin Kaysen when he hosted the Young Chef Competition in Chicago, and I want to work at his restaurant in Minneapolis. As for position, I think coming right out of culinary school I need to be on the line or prepping food. Even though I’ve been a sous chef, I don’t want to go into that position because I know I have a lot more to learn.

Chef Profiles, Feature