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Cooking is serious business for teens

This could be lunch hour at any suburban high school. students cluster in arbitrary spots up and down the halls of Cary High. They spill out of doors and into the warm spring morning. Some saunter across Walnut Street to find food elsewhere. In one building, though, are students who do not seek food, but create it. They’re the restaurateurs and chefs of the future – and they’re still teenagers.

“It’s a passion of mine,” says junior Ethan Corley, who started cooking with his family and at church when he was 10. “I wanted to build onto these skills and make them really good so I can one day be on TV or go to a good college or own my own restaurant.”

It doesn’t sound like bragging, though: Ethan is confident, but soft-spoken, and simply knows what he’d like out of the future.

“You gotta aim high,” he says.

Ethan is a member of Cary High’s ProStart team, a five-student group that competed in – and won – the 2016 NC ProStart Invitational’s culinary competition in Durham. In April, the team traveled to the national invitational in Dallas, where they competed against teams from 50 states and overseas. Final results aren’t yet available, but the team did win a Las Vegas trip in a drawing.

This isn’t just any culinary competition, either, but one with remarkably precise – and strict – guidelines: teams have an hour, two butane burners – camp stoves, effectively – and access to neither running water nor electricity. With these limited means, they produce dishes that could be served in upscale restaurants – and win scholarships to culinary schools.

It’s a strong start to the career they all want.

“I started cooking when I was 15 years old. My mother was a waitress at the time and she got me into the restaurants, working to pretty much get me out of trouble and making money,” says Fearrington House sous chef Thomas Card. “I really relate to the kids from being their age and working in restaurants.”

Card is one of the team’s two professional mentors, the other of whom is chef Evan Sheridan, formerly of the Umstead Hotel and Spa, and he has lent his ultra-fine dining expertise to Cary High’s ProStart team since October. Accordingly, when teacher Ashley Whitesides scrolls through food pictures on her phone, the dishes look like they originated in a top-flight professional kitchen, though they were prepared in the back of a high school classroom.

“You can have a traditional classroom or you can have a commercial kitchen,” Whitesides says. “Most (ProStart programs) have traditional.” The classroom in Cary has sinks, counters and stovetops around the sides, like a science lab or an old-style home-ec room, but stainless steel food service tables in the rear contribute to a professional kitchen feel.

The attitudes of the students, of juniors Ethan, DJ Bryant, Tavonna Dorsett and Andrew Clore and senior Sheriden Lovell, are especially professional: They talk like chefs. The smoked trout DJ describes or the chocolate dessert Sheriden explains would be right at home on an upscale restaurant’s menu. These students know the cost of their ingredients and what these dishes would cost to customers.

Some of this mindfulness and professionalism comes from direct exposure: Card regularly comes to the school, but Sheriden also has interned at the Umstead Hotel while Tavonna’s time at renowned steakhouse The Angus Barn has helped her rethink her trajectory. Tavonna likes working in the kitchen, but she’s discovered a passion for the hospitality side of food service, what’s called front-of-house.

“Like Tavonna, I want to go more into the hospitality industry because I like the person-to-person interaction and I also like planning and organizing,” DJ says. “Events we do at school, catered events, I like to help Mrs. Whitesides out in planning.” To keep his culinary skills sharp, he says he might also get an associate’s degree in culinary.

For now, though, the students are getting a head start on the pressures and rewards of professional cuisine – and they’re bringing their new abilities back home. When Ethan cooks with his family nowadays, they bring their food questions to him.

“They can come to me and ask, ‘What temperature is this chicken? Is it right?’ ” he says, looking pleased. “I look at it, I probe it, I cut it and they like that I can tell them without having to look it up,” he says. “I’m like an internet, just by knowing.”