Competing in a pressure cooker

Culinary contest challenges students to prepare spectacular three-course meal

February 04, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

One hour. Two burners. Three courses. Four high school students.

Students representing two Howard County high schools and the Applications and Research Lab won't have much more than that when they compete Saturday in a statewide culinary competition.

The cook-off is, in many ways, just as challenging as the ones on popular television shows such as Top Chef. And the stakes for these students are comparable - scholarship money and a huge boost for anyone interested in a kitchen-based career.

Accordingly, the county students gearing up for this year's event at Howard Community College are practicing by mincing, dicing, sauteing and searing their hearts out.

As the competition draws closer, they are meeting after school nearly every day to run through their dishes and practice knife skills. They are tasting and re-tasting sauces and fine-tuning garnishes.

At Reservoir High School, perfectionism is the name of the game. During a recent run-through, team captain Lauren Mosier placed minuscule strings of fried leeks on top of two seared scallops that had each been carefully placed in a puddle of sauce in the middle of a white plate. When one of the leeks fell off the browned exterior of the seared mollusk, she asked a teammate to pick it up because she had sauce on her gloved hand and did not want to dirty the garnish.

At the Applications and Research Lab, students had been working since September to fine-tune a menu to reflect the cultural diversity of the state, said their teacher, Elaine Heilman. The ARL team, which has students from Centennial, Long Reach, Wilde Lake and River Hill, has big shoes to fill. For the past two years, Heilman has led her students to victory at the state level, but now she is working with a new group.

Oakland Mills High School entered the competition only a few weeks ago, after another school dropped out, said teacher Zenoba Stephens. That means her students have been scrambling to create a menu and hone their skills in preparing it. Like the other teams, her students have been meeting for several hours every day after school to see if they can make everything in the allotted hour.

As with all teams, students must work together to create the recipes, with no help from the teacher. Fortunately, said Stephens, "they work really well together."

The competition, called the Maryland ProStart Student Invitational, is open to Maryland students who take part in the ProStart program.

Created by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, ProStart's goal is to prepare students for food-related careers. About 1,300 schools nationwide participate, including 30 in Maryland.

Of those 30, 16 will send teams to the cook-off. The winning school will go on to the ProStart Student Invitational in April in Charlotte, N.C.

Many schools offer health and nutrition classes, but the ProStart program takes food-related skills to a higher level. And the competition, with the chance to win prize money ($590,000 total), brings the level higher still.

Reservoir High, which opened five years ago, has had a ProStart program for two years. This is the first year the school is entering a team in the competition, said teacher Madge Johnson. "It's good experience for them, and it's good on their resumes," she said.

Mosier, the Reservoir team leader, was in ProStart her junior year. But she said she is learning much more this year because of the competition. "This is a lot more work, but it's more fun," she said.

For the competition, students have a half-hour to set up, then one hour to create a meal using a single 8-foot table and two butane burners. They must bring everything else they need, including water and knives.

They are not allowed to use electricity, Heilman said, "so if they want to whip cream, they have to do it by hand."

Entrants are judged on the complexity of the dish (the more complex, the better), proper cooking methods and food-safety precautions, and, of course, taste. The menus must be submitted in advance, along with a detailed cost sheet. Students also are judged on their knife skills in a separate part of the competition.

Heilman chose the five students - four teammates and an alternate - on her team by having an "entrance exam" in which students had to prepare food in a given amount of time.

Once the team was chosen, the students spent time finding the perfect dishes. They tried different side dishes and tinkered with flavors. Finally, they came up with what they hope is a winning combination, though they refuse to reveal it before the competition.

"I just thought it would be a pretty good learning experience," said Pete Gallagher, 17, a Wilde Lake senior who is part of the ARL team and has been working in restaurants since he was 14.

Crystal Rivera, 18, a Long Reach High School senior also on the ARL team, said that she hopes to own a restaurant one day and that this competition is helping her reach that goal. "I heard that you get a lot of connections," she said.

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