Aspen’s ProStart for the win |

Aspen’s ProStart for the win

Back row: Left to right: Andy Vernier, Jackson Landis, Tristan Niskanen, Noah Langhoff, Jes Stuart

If You Go …

What: Somm Off, benefitting Aspen High School’s ProStart program. Four-course dinner with two wine pairings per course, featuring Chefs from Hotel Jerome, Viceroy Snowmass, The Little Nell and Cache Cache.

Where: Hotel Jerome

When: Tonight, 6 p.m.

Cost: $245 per person, plus gratuity.

To make a reservation, call 970-429-7610 or the hotel Jerome at 970-920-1000.

It’s hot in the kitchen, but the ProStart students at Aspen High School aren’t sweating.

They’re cranking out dishes that could compete with some of Aspen’s finest, and they’re winning awards for their work — they took home first place in the Western Slope ProStart competition a couple of weeks ago, and they’ll try to top their previous two finishes in 2013 and 2014 of third and fourth place at the state competition Friday.

The program, a statewide high school hospitality program, incorporates business management, customer service and other hospitality industry skills into the curriculum. Morgan Henschke took over as the teacher at Aspen High School three years ago, under the mentorship of Chris Lanter, the chef/owner at Cache Cache.

The five-person high school culinary team is cranking out dishes like braised rabbit fettuccini with housemade ricotta, pancetta and tarragon wine sauce, or sustainable Colorado striped bass with potato puree, Brussel leaves, garlic and parsley oil and red-wine reduction.

And they’re not just learning how to cook creatively, they’re learning about what they love to do.

“I could see myself working with food,” said culinary team member Lindzhi Douglass, 16. “It’s not work for me because I enjoy it. Time isn’t an issue — two hours feels like 20 minutes.”

Douglass said for now, cooking is just a hobby, but she’s definitely thinking more about how she might incorporate it into a career.

Douglass will join her classmates today at the Hotel Jerome for a special “Somm Off” event benefiting the ProStart program. They’ll work in the kitchen to help chefs Lanter, Bryan Moscatello of The Little Nell, Will Nolan of the Viceroy Snowmass and Rob Zack of Hotel Jerome create a four-course dinner. The only thing the students won’t get to do is taste the wine pairings, provided by sommeliers Rose Manzo of Cache Cache and Christel Stiver of Hotel Jerome, who will compete head-to-head with each course. The diners will choose which sommelier paired the best wines to each dish.

Manzo said she’s excited for the competition, but the best part of the Somm Off is that it’s benefiting ProStart.

Lanter has high hopes for the Aspen High team at the state competition later this month. They’ll prepare their winning meal from the Western Slope competition again, but the more time they have in the kitchen before the event, the better.

“Like any team, whoever practices the hardest and puts in the most is going to win,” Lanter said.

The students are putting in the time, too. They’re practicing several times per week, doing everything from “mise en place” — French for putting in place or setting up — to food prep to health and sanitation.

“It’s emulating the hectic pace in the kitchen,” Lanter said.

The students on the culinary team, which this year includes Lindzhi Douglass, Matilda Nickell, Jes Stuart, Jackson Landis and Giovani Velasquez, also participate at events like the Mac & Cheese Festival, the Chocolate Classic and the Denver Food and Wine Festival. Earlier this week, they baked 200 cookies for Pathfinders Aspen.

“We have an amazing team,” Henschke said. “I’m so grateful, and this community has been amazing about helping me out.”

Community members such as Rob Zack, the chef at the Hotel Jerome who suggested turning tonight’s Somm Off into a fundraiser for ProStart.

Fundraising is important because churning out delicious plates of food costs money, as does the equipment required to do it. Lanter is envious of the Battle Mountain High School ProStart kitchen and hopes to help bring Aspen’s up to that level. Battle Mountain High School, located west of Vail in Edwards, has eight state titles in the past 11 years.

But with third place in 2013 and fourth place in 2014, Aspen’s ProStart team is making its mark, too.

“ProStart has really taken off this year,” Douglass said. “We got first at Western Slope, so we’ve already set the bar higher. I think that our class as a whole works great together — we’re all great friends.”

To truly take off, though, fundraising events such as tonight’s Somm Off are critical. Lanter said you wouldn’t believe how expensive it can get. He’s thrilled to see Aspen High School and the community get behind the program so it can purchase things like copper bowls.

“A copper bowl stays cold, for egg whites, so you have to get it,” he said. “After this fundraiser, we’ll be able to have a commercial sink.”

And if Aspen does well at the state competition, they’ll get more than that. Lanter said the students who picked up third a couple of years ago won a collective $30,000 or so in scholarship money, which can be put toward any course of study.

“It’s huge money,” Lanter said.

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