Miles Austin placed a lobster on one of Cary High’s kitchen counters and, while he adjusted his gloves, it started scurrying away.
School had dismissed for the day, but teachers were still roaming the hallways. One popped in the classroom kitchen to watch the school’s team of student chefs practice.
“It’s still alive?” she asked as the crustacean crawled off the cutting board. Then she noticed Austin didn’t plan on using a knife to fit the lobster into a small pot.
“Is he gonna break it right there with his hands?” she asked a crowd of onlookers.
Indeed he did.
Within the hour, Austin and four of his Cary High peers – some of whom struggled to appropriately dice vegetables only a few months ago – transformed the lobster and a slew of other fresh ingredients into an award-winning three-course dinner.
Austin, Parkari Boykin, Jarad Gilbert, Tatyanna Stewart and Sheridan Lovell won North Carolina’s biggest high school culinary competition March 24 in Durham. On April 17 and 18, they’ll represent the state in the national championships at Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California.
“I still can’t believe it,” Stewart said.
“It won’t feel real until I get there,” Boykin said.
And when they get there, they want their meal to be on point.
On that day of practice, Austin didn’t hesitate to twist the lobster’s torso and tail in opposite directions like he was opening a tube of crescent rolls.
“I can’t watch,” said Wendy Gressett, the coordinator of the school’s culinary academy who had come to observe.
For Tom Card, a sous chef at the Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro, it was just one of many proud moments he’s had since he started advising the team a few months ago.
“The first couple of practices were kind of a jumbled mess,” said Card, who lives in Holly Springs. “It’s impressive how much they’ve learned ... and fun to see how passionate they are.”
The Cary High students are part of ProStart, a program embraced by some schools and partially funded by members of the food industry through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The program puts high school students on track to receive a ProStart certificate of achievement and go on to attend culinary school.
During the North Carolina ProStart Invitational, teams were allowed to prepare almost any three-course meal as long as they could do so in less than an hour. They only could use two butane burners, and they didn’t have access to an oven, running water or electricity.
Judges evaluated teams based on their skills with kitchen utensils, their safety and sanitation measures, their teamwork skills, food presentation and the taste of the food.
With the Cary High team’s choice of a meal, which will be repeated at the national level, Card said the students are sending a message to the judges that they’re not afraid of a challenge.
The appetizer: poached lobster in a blood orange-vanilla vinaigrette with seared parsnips, frisée, pecans, diced sweet potato and orange segments.
The entrée: bacon-wrapped beef shoulder tender with heirloom carrots and potato butter, adorned with mitaki mushrooms, sherry vinegar and panko infused with tarragon.
For dessert: a pineapple-topped white chocolate and coconut panna cotta with a hazelnut crust.
The students said they’ve expanded their palates since they started training for the ProStart competitions earlier this year with Card and their teacher, Ashley Whitesides.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the first time they’d ever had lobster, or even panna cotta,” Whitesides said of their first training sessions. “But they’re succeeding, because I feel like they’re more willing to take risks.”
Card, 32, volunteered to mentor the students after hearing about the opportunity from a friend who used to work at the school. He visits the team twice a week – often on his days off – and has given team members tours of The Fearrington House and a taste of its five-star offerings.
He embraced the role of mentor because he wants to help them pursue their dreams, which he did from a young age.
“I learned most everything I know from chefs and artists above me,” Card said.
Practice makes perfect
By winning the North Carolina ProStart Invitational, which the school also won in 2013 with different students, each of the five Cary High students earned scholarships at a number of prestigious culinary schools. Seniors Boykin, Gilbert and Stewart plan on using the money later this year to attend culinary school. They all want to become top chefs or run their own business.
Gilbert, who plans to attend Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, hopes to learn enough to launch his own catering business. He’s wanted to cook high-quality food for a living since he was a young boy who watched cooking shows with his grandmother. He enjoyed the shows so much that his family took him on a tour of Herons, the five-star restaurant at Cary’s Umstead Hotel and Spa.
“I loved to hear the sizzle on the pan,” Gilbert said. “It’s art to me. I get to express myself through cooking.”
During practices, the students adorn white chef’s coats and hats and make the same dish over and over until it’s perfect.
Card guides them in a direct but friendly tone. Students say his encouragement makes them more eager to learn, and even has boosted their self-esteem.
“He’s helped me become a better leader,” said Lovell, a junior who’s in charge of keeping the team on task during the 60-minute cooking window.
Lovell’s job is important during competitions because teachers and coaches aren’t allowed to communicate with their teams. Card said he was so tense during the state competition that he grew his first gray hairs.
“I literally had to leave because of my nerves,” Whitesides added.
The students? They were too focused to worry about anything.
And they felt pretty confident about their chances after watching the judges sample their food.
“When you see the judges eating your scraps, yeah, you know,” Gilbert said with a smile.