With an appetizer of crab-stuffed ravioli and rockfish, an entree of pork tenderloin, and cream-filled empanadas for dessert, the cooking team from Howard County's Applications and Research Lab won the Maryland ProStart Student Invitational for the third year in a row.
"We felt that it went well," said Ryan Meliker, 16, the team leader. Even before the winner was announced, he said, "We knew we were going to do pretty well, maybe not win. But I think we knew we did pretty well."
Students on the winning team were Kevin Gonsales and Crystal Rivera of Long Reach High School; Meliker of Centennial High School; Pete Gallagher of Wilde Lake High School; and Jason Cohen of River Hill High School.
"We are now getting ready to go to the nationals," said Elaine Heilman, the ARL teacher who worked with the winning team. There, the students will compete against 35 other state-level winners.
This year was particularly challenging because all four members, plus the alternate, were new to the program, Heilman said. And most were not her students.
As an additional hurdle, the contest has grown in the three years it has been in existence, said Marshall Weston, executive vice president of the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, which hosts the event.
Last year, he said, seven teams competed for scholarship money and the opportunity to cook against other state champions in a national cook-off. This year, 15 Maryland schools entered the contest, held Feb. 10 at Howard Community College. About 500 people were in the audience, he said.
The ARL team lost three points for going three minutes over the allotted time, Heilman said. But they excelled in other areas.
"They received very high marks for their entree and their dessert, and, to go along with that, they had very high marks when it came to organization and teamwork," Weston said.
The winning team received $5,000 in scholarship money from Whole Foods, plus as much as $30,000 in potential tuition discounts from culinary schools.
The team is preparing for the national competition, scheduled for the weekend of April 21 in Charlotte, N.C. Expenses will be paid by the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, Heilman said.
Meliker had planned to become a chef, but winning the competition "definitely helps," he said.
The competition was open to Maryland schools that take part in the ProStart program, a career-track training program created by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. About 1,300 schools nationwide participate in ProStart, including 30 in Maryland.
For the competition, students had a half-hour to set up, then one hour to create a three-course meal, using a single 8-foot table and two butane burners. They had to bring everything else they needed, including water and knives, and they were not allowed to use electricity.
In Howard County, Reservoir High School and Oakland Mills High School also entered teams.
Weston said about 20 judges at the Maryland event graded the teams on preparation techniques, food safety, presentation and the quality of the menu. The judges came from restaurants or culinary schools, and included Rudy Speckamp, former owner of Rudys 2900 in Finksburg, one of 62 certified master chefs in the nation, he said.
Only the top three winners have been announced so far, he said. Second place went to Quince Orchard High School, and Watkins Mill High School took third. Both are in Montgomery County.
Heilman noted that her team worked hard to win at the state level. The group started in September, meeting at least once a week after school to come up with a menu.
After tasting and fine-tuning the recipes and side dishes, they created an entree of pork tenderloin stuffed with Granny Smith apples, served with a mix of black-eyed peas, carrots and okra and a fluffy potato pancake.
The chocolate empanada for dessert was cream-filled and served with a fresh berry compote.
The team will bring the same menu, with a few tweaks, to the national competition, said Meliker. "I think it's going to be very competitive," he said.
Heilman gave the students credit for devoting so much time to the competition. "It's a lot of work," she said. "They have to be committed."