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Cactus High School exists in a culinary world light-years beyond tater tots.

Once a month, the school's aspiring chefs transform an empty classroom or the campus courtyard into a student-run bistro that puts lunch~room fare to shame. Students, teachers, and administrators at the 1,600-student school in the Peoria district outside Phoenix practically fight for reservations at the Cactus Cafe. After all, why settle for fish sticks and succotash in a crowded cafeteria when there's leg of lamb to be had on linen tablecloths down the hall.

Last month, at the behest of Peoria Mayor Ken Forgia, the teenage cooks from the school's culinary-arts program took their show on the road to represent the city at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, where civic pride and good eating meet. The annual event brings out a $50-a-ticket, black-tie-optional crowd to swirl about and munch away as resort chefs from the Phoenix area offer up their signature dishes (last year was desserts) in hopes of winning the coveted Mayor's Cup.

Until this spring, the Year of the Appetizer, Peoria--where there is talk of a resort but, as yet, no actual resort--was left out. So the mayor turned to the Cactus Cafe to give Peoria a seat at the gourmet table. And by the end of the evening, the students had not only dished out more than 700 servings of their spicy cactus quesadilla but also slices of humble pie to the professional chefs.

Honorary judge Robin Leach, the shrill host of TV's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" who also has a show on cable television's upstart Food Network, savored all 14 contenders before wiping his mouth and announcing a tie between the Scottsdale Hyatt Regency and the kids from Peoria.

Cactus High Principal Cindy Rudrud said she wasn't surprised. "There was everything from sushi to quail to some sort of pineapple salsa thing," she remembers. "Theirs was the simplest, but after all that rich food, it was appealing to have something that seemed familiar."

The school's winning dish combined marinated chicken breast, bits of edible cactus, and jack cheese simmering inside a fluffy flour tortilla cut in triangles. A spicy garnish, a sculpted tomato stuffed with avocado, and a puff pastry in the shape of a cactus completed the dish, which sat atop a leaf of red lettuce.

School officials say the ambitious students in Judy Brown's vocational course worked for about two months planning the appetizing entry. In the name of just desserts, the Hyatt crew agreed to let the trophy reside at Cactus High, where it now sits outside the cafeteria in a cabinet alongside a state basketball trophy.

--Lonnie Harp

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