Melissa Hill has tasted success since starting to learn the culinary arts.
During her sophomore year, she won the FCCLA (Family Career and Community Leaders of America) Arizona state culinary championship.
Last year, she savored the success of being the first Arizonan to win an FCCLA scholarship to go to Japan as an exchange student.
On a Monday morning in August, Hill, now a senior, stood amongst the Cuisinarts, Kitchen Aide mixers, pots and pans of Devon Wells’ Payson High School culinary arts class to present a power point and answer questions about her trip to Japan — and encourage her fellow students to apply for the program.
The Kikkoman Corporation sponsors the scholarship and while FCCLA and the soy sauce company are both about the culinary arts, there is no guarantee the host family will have anything to do with the food industry.
But Hill just has that sort of luck. Her host family owned a restaurant that’s been in the family for 120 years and she had the chance to cook with professionals.
“The restaurant was right in front of the house. We’d walk over every night and ate in the kitchen,” said Hill.
From the start, Hill has shown focus, dedication and independence. Wells is proud of her student.
“Melissa is one whom has started out with limited knowledge and has acted like a sponge in class, acquiring what knowledge has been made available to her. I call that diligence,” said Wells of her student.
That diligence served her well in Japan. The culture respects hard work. Hill spent six weeks attending classes and immersing herself in the culture.
“I went to school every day. It started at 8 a.m. and went until 4 p.m. Then they had clubs that would keep the students in school until 7 p.m.,” she said.
Hill’s family lived in the Akita prefecture of Japan in a town called Odate. A prefecture is similar to a state or province.
Odate lies in the far north of the main island of Japan. Hill visited in the summer, but if she had visited in the winter, her family and friends told her she would have experienced extreme cold. Since she visited in summer, the weather felt palatably humid and hot.
“The school didn’t have air conditioning because of power outages due to the tsunami. It was hot,” said Hill.
Hill actually worried about how the damage from the earthquake and tsunami would affect her trip. Her good fortune held out though and her trip went smoothly.
The town sits so far north in Japan that Hill’s pictures showed lush green forests and vegetation. Hill also showed pictures of Akita prefecture’s famous orchards of apples and fields of blueberries — a perfect spot for a foodie to visit.
“They like ramen. They ate tons of pork. They also ate squid, fried shrimp, and eels in their cafeteria food,” said Hill.
During her presentation, Wells’ students peppered Hill with questions: “Did you have to know Japanese?”
“How did you communicate?”
“What are their houses like?”
“What are their bathrooms like?”
“What is considered impolite in Japan?”
Patiently, Hill answered their questions by explaining that she didn’t know how to speak the language before she went.
During a three-day orientation prior to leaving for Japan, she learned a few basic words. When she arrived in the country, her host family handed her a chart with simple requests listed such as, I would like a shower, or I’m hungry. None of her host family spoke much English and she forgot to bring an English/Japanese dictionary.
“If you guys go to Japan, make sure you buy one before you leave. I thought I could find one over there, but they didn’t have one,” said Hill.
Some of Hill’s pictures showed her host family’s house. They didn’t have many chairs and the beds lay on the ground.
Hill was surprised at the bathrooms, too. She said she had to take a shower and then she soaked in the tub.
“The whole room is tile with a bathtub, a hand held shower and a stool,” said Hill.
Toilets were another matter.
“Some were a hole in the ground with these feet things ... I can’t really describe it, I’d rather show you a picture and I didn’t take one,” said Hill.
As to what the Japanese consider impolite, Hill learned early on to put title behind an adult’s name.
“If you don’t put a title, you’re considered a brat,” said Hill.
Overall, Hill felt honored by her chance to travel and cook in another country. She encouraged the class to apply for the scholarship.
“It wasn’t hard, the link is on the FCCLA Web site. It’s well worth applying,” said Hill.