Contest puts heat on young chefs

schandler@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2013 

  • The menu

    Each team at the National ProStart Invitational had to prepare a three-course meal in one hour, using only two butane burners. Here’s what the Cary High School team whipped up:

    Appetizer: Pan-seared Outer Banks scallops with pine nut salad, chive beurre blanc, blood orange

    Entrée: Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with coconut rice, butternut squash, baby carrots, blackberry jus

    Dessert: Panna cotta with rosemary, lemon, blueberry, honeycomb

At the National ProStart Invitational last month in Baltimore, a team from Cary High School proved they could take the heat, even if it didn’t involve a full kitchen.

With just two butane burners and an hour on the clock, the students made a three-course gourmet dinner to impress a panel of judges who were looking for presentation and professionalism as well as a tasty meal.

They’d been perfecting their menu since August, practicing in class and after school for an appetizer of pan-seared scallops; an entrée of duck breast; and, for dessert, panna cotta.

They got a lot of guidance from Thomas Card, sous chef at The Fearrington House Restaurant, who helped the students refine their ideas and get the execution just right.

Toward the beginning, team member Brittany Hall said, “we worked through a couple things, decided what we liked and didn’t like.” Then it was time to roll up their sleeves and get cooking.

“We basically practiced everything over and over,” said Brittany, a senior who will attend the Chef’s Academy in Morrisville after graduation.

All the practice paid off for the team – Brittany, Jordan Hollins, Juan Fernandez, Stephen Barclay and alternate Curtis Brannen – when they won first place in the state competition. From there, they had just a few weeks to perfect their menu for nationals.

They made a few small tweaks to their dishes, based on the judges’ comments, but the main challenge, as in earlier competitions, was beating the clock.

“If you were in just a regular kitchen, you would take your time doing stuff,” said Brittany. “But through doing this you learn to cut your time in half. You can still do everything in a shorter amount of time.”

In addition to cooking, the students had to demonstrate their knife skills, an area that met with bad luck when a team member cut his thumb during the demonstration. The team didn’t place in the top five at the national competition, but Cary High ProStart teacher Tracie Head said it’s hard to be disappointed when you’re ranked among the best in the nation just by getting there.

“They definitely held their own competing against everyone,” Head said. “I think all in all they felt very good about what they did.”

ProStart is a nationwide two-year program for high school students that teaches culinary concepts, management skills and more with an eye toward preparation for a job in the real-world restaurant industry. After the coursework, national exams and 400 supervised work hours, students can receive certification that opens the door to scholarships, culinary school course credit and jobs. Cary High is one of about a dozen schools in the Triangle that offer the program.

Curtis, a junior, signed up for the ProStart class “because I really like cooking” and “to get the experience,” he said. He’s not completely settled on a career path yet, but his plan is to explore hospitality and management and “see what goes on from there.”

Preparing for the competitions taught him how to cook, of course, but also how to communicate, he said.

“I learned how to work as a team with a bunch of other people,” Curtis said. “When I came into the competition, I didn’t really know them like I do now. Now we’re like a family.”

Next year he’ll be an official part of the competition team, and he’s already thinking ahead:

“We’re brainstorming ideas of what we can cook.”

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