Perfection is the key ingredient

Team: A national contest is on the menu for five Howard students.

December 23, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

As five Howard County culinary students chopped, stirred, sauteed and garnished a three-course meal at the school system's Applications and Research Laboratory on Tuesday, they scrutinized every aspect of the dishes.

Every detail was discussed, from the shape of the beef portions to the amount of watercress in the salad to the exact placement of sugared basil leaves garnishing a dessert.

The group members are preparing to pit their cooking skills against the best student chefs in the country at the National ProStart Student Invitational in April. At the contest, they will have one hour to make three dishes that show creativity, look attractive and taste good.

The challenge, said Sarah Draper, a junior at River Hill High School, "is making sure that everything is perfect."

Howard County's team was chosen in the fall in a contest among culinary students at the county's Technology Magnet Program. It bested five other teams at the state's first contest in October, earning thousands of dollars in scholarships to college culinary programs.

On to Florida

In April, the group will take on student chefs from around 30 states at the Disney World resort in Orlando, Fla. Another $80,000 in scholarships are available there.

As in the state contest, the competitors must provide all of the raw ingredients. They are limited to two butane burners as heat sources, and mechanized equipment, such as food processors, is forbidden.

The competitive element is "more motivating" than cooking in class, Draper said. "It is definitely more exciting."

She said at the state contest - held at the Mid-Atlantic Food, Beverage and Lodging Expo in Timonium with several hundred spectators looking on - the toughest part was getting over her nervousness. But, she said, "while I'm up there cooking, it's fine."

`We didn't talk'

Felipe Soto, a senior at Long Reach High School, said the team's professionalism was an asset at the state competition.

"I was real confident," he said. "We didn't talk. ... We just did what we had to do."

The team also includes Daniel Adams and alternate Lei Christine Garcia, both River Hill juniors, and Aurielle Austin, a Long Reach junior. All five students will be going to Florida with funding from the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation.

When the team first formed, it started by planning a menu with help from a chef mentor, Marc Dixon of the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia.

The members decided on lobster salad with greens in champagne vinaigrette, beef tenderloins with wild mushroom ragout and herbed potato chips and stuffed citrus crepes with warm fruit compote.

That menu also will be used at the national contest. For both events, students must submit an appropriate price for each dish and make a budget for every ingredient, as well as identify steps for food safety.

On Tuesday, the practice session was all about fine-tuning.

Guest instructor Shawn Harlan, an instructional specialist at Anne Arundel Community College's Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute, made suggestions on everything from the taste of the salad dressing to the cleanliness of the plates.

As Harlan critiqued Soto's technique for trimming and slicing a beef tenderloin, Technology Magnet instructor Elaine S. Heilman was keeping the contest's one-hour time limit in mind. She reminded Soto he would have about five minutes to complete that task.

Then Heilman moved to another stove and helped Draper learn to scoop a mixture of melted sugar, cornstarch and water with a multi-pronged tool and fling it across a baking sheet to create fluffy spun sugar decorations for the crepes.

"We're going to have to practice that because it's going to be a wow-er," Heilman said.

Despite lots of suggestions, Adams was confident that by April, "we will have a good idea of what we need to do."

Practice sauce

They take the contest seriously, Heilman said. They have to keep up with their other classes despite practice sessions at the laboratory and after school. Near the time of the state competition, they were meeting every other week, she said, and will likely pick up a similar schedule in February.

"Just like you have to practice throwing a football, you have to practice making that sauce," she said.

At the state competition, "I was amazed at what these kids came up with, how it looked," said Marshall G. Weston Jr., executive vice president of the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, which sponsored the contest. "I could tell they knew what they were doing."

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