It’s a familiar scenario, played out over and over again on hit shows like Top Chef, Chopped and The Taste, which, appearing nonstop on the Cooking Channel, The Food Network, Bravo and the like, have fueled the current cooking competition craze and caused ratings to soar.
But this time, it’s not a vetted group of professional chefs competing for a title that might land them a little (or a lot) more celebrity, perhaps via a best-selling cookbook or a cooking show of their own, or even (gasp) the chance to show off their skills during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June (Top Chef winners routinely make an appearance, including at the popular Classic Cook-off). And we’re not even touching on the potential for financial gains here, although there may be some scholarship money involved.
This time, it’s a group of Roaring Fork Valley high school students who, as participants in Carbondale-based ProStart at YouthEntity, are practicing for the highlight of their academic year, the 15th Annual ProStart Invitational, Sysco Denver Hospitality Cup Competition, which will be held on March 21 at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
A Little Back-story
ProStart is a national, two-year culinary arts and business entrepreneurship program for high school students interested in the hotel and hospitality field. Students fulfilling 400 hours of mentored work experience and passing a pair of national exams receive the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement. With it comes eligibility for scholarships, as well as course credits at more than 75 of the country’s leading hospitality and culinary arts colleges and universities.
With support from industry members, educators, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) and state restaurant association partners, the program has reached more than 95,000 students in 1,900 high schools across 48 states, Guam and U.S. military bases.
In Colorado, the ProStart curriculum is being implemented in more than 30 high schools thanks to a partnership of the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association. Last year, Colorado ProStart graduates received more than $7.5 million in scholarships.
OK, so that was a mouthful.
But it’s that significant potential which, in 2012, inspired Kirsten Petre McDaniel to launch ProStart at YouthEntity, the nonprofit youth development initiative she’s championed since its beginning as the Computers For Kids Foundation in 2001 (she is now president and executive director).
“YouthEntity is about providing experiential learning for students,” Petre McDaniel said about the concept, which also includes intensive business, finance and technology programs, as well as a baking and pastry arts program called YouthChefs. “There is such a wealth of diverse opportunities for young people in the restaurant and food service industry today. ProStart at YouthEntity gives local high school students a platform to discover new interests, and offers real-life, hands-on experience by bringing together the industry and the classroom. It’s empowering.”
The Kitchen as Classroom
The setting for the aforementioned culinary competition practice is the 1,000-square-foot commercial teaching kitchen in YouthEntity’s home base within the former Carbondale Middle School. “When we moved into the space, we put together a fundraising party to connect with donors, and got grants, to refurbish the old cafeteria kitchen,” said Petre McDaniel. “We collected all the gadgets first, then outfitted the pantry and brought in ovens and work tables.” Walk-in refrigerators were already in place, as were stoves, which, while old, would have been expensive to replace. “They’re hanging in for the time being,” McDaniel noted, fingers crossed. With the help of Aspen-based Charles Cunniffe architects, the school’s former gymnasium was also re-concepted and designed as open-plan work and meeting space according to the students’ needs.
Taking place after regular school hours, as does all of ProStart’s program time, the practice precisely mimics the official competition set-up, as well as its mind-bendingly detailed rules and regulations. “Two burners, no ovens, no power tools,” ProStart chef-instructor Matthew Maier stated with a mix of humor and chagrin. “During the competition, the time starts when (the team) walks in and they bring every single thing they need to work with. There’s fifteen minutes for set-up, then one hour for cooking — with no TV time-outs.”
On the clock, the team — Flora Fischbacher of Glenwood Springs High School, Cynthia Ayala of Roaring Fork High School, Daniela Chissum and Karla Enrique, both of Basalt High School — arrives at their workstations, each outfitted in a white ProStart chef jacket and weighed down with ingredients and gear.
With focused precision, they set up a make-shift kitchen, complete with everything from propane-fired burners to a contained water source, arrange a mise en place of ingredients at a pair of stainless steel work tables and begin preparing three dishes — appetizer, entrée and dessert — that they have researched and developed. “It’s all choreographed, like a dance,” commented Petre McDaniel, watching from the sidelines.
Later, that meal, along with every aspect and detail of its preparation, including the cleanliness of work stations, culinary etiquette, knife skills, proper handling of ingredients, cooking techniques, cost (there is a limit to the amount of money that may be spent to produce the meal) and then some, will be scrutinized and judged on a 100-point system.
This time, it’s by Maier, and his review is mixed. “You did a good job with the timing, and the set-up and teamwork was good,” he told the group. “But you murdered the protein.” Scallops, charred on too-high heat in too much butter. To remedy, or better yet, avoid, the situation in the future, Maier suggested paying closer attention to the pan. “If it’s smoking, it’s too hot, so take it off the heat and cool it down,” he said. “If there’s too much butter, get rid of some.”
Every comment was accepted as it was meant, as constructive criticism, with a respectful “Yes, chef.” “My role is more steward or shepherd,” explained Maier, who, as a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, CMC chef-instructor and long-time private chef in Aspen, has significant culinary chops. “The kids come to me for advice and I help them along. (ProStart) gives them a chance to figure out that, ‘yes, this is something I want to do,’ or ‘no, I hate this.’ It’s high school. There’s nothing on the line, but they come out way more invested in their future.”
Fischbacher and Ayala, both seniors, concur. “It’s not very common to have an opportunity like this,” said Ayala, who, before ProStart, had always enjoyed cooking with her grandma and aunts at home, and plans to attend Johnson & Wales, in either Denver or Providence, R.I., this fall. Fischbacher, who also works for her dad, well-known local chef and ProStart proponent-volunteer Andreas Fischbacher, at his Allegria restaurant in Carbondale, added: “Chef Matt has shown us so many techniques. It’s real-world experience here. We learn about the front and back of the house, and know our strengths and weaknesses.” Fischbacher will head off to culinary school in Vienna in September.
The Front of the House
On the same day the culinary team competes in Denver, the business management team — Cristian Mendez, Naomi Peters and Shion Reilly — will be involved in a business management competition as well. Describing the project on which their team will be judged, Mendez explained: “We designed a concept for an entire restaurant, from top to bottom, the name, what the interior design and layout will look like, a description of the menu, marketing tactics, costing, and develop a PowerPoint presentation. My parents always told me to look for a major that offered a good career or job. I joined ProStart to learn how to cook, but I love the business side. This project is my portfolio.”
Mendez has been accepted to Denver University and hopes to attend school there in the fall. In turn, Reilly hopes to further his business studies at either Lewis & Clark or CU Boulder, and Peters will likely attend Colorado Mountain College locally for two years before applying to a four-year university to study restaurant hospitality and management.
For now, though, the focus is on the upcoming competition. With just a couple of weeks to go, Reilly sums up the ProStart team’s sentiments: “It gets nerve-wracking,” he said. “But once you get up there, you’re ready. You know your part.”