Student chefs compete for state glory

Nine Iowa high schools participated in the 2013 Iowa ProStart Invitational on Monday

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“Did you do the vinaigrette?” Shedrie Smith asks one of her teammates, as an adult woman reminds the ladies that they have four minutes left. Smith then bangs a bottle of the dressing on a table, in complete contrast to the quick but delicate way she dispenses the liquid onto beds of leafy greens.

It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m., but at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, it’s not too early for quail salad, seared beef filet and lemon curd.

About an hour later, Smith munches on Doritos, later dismissing a package of Lorna Doones – “them cookies are gross,” she says – one thought comes to her mind Monday afternoon: Her lunch is a far cry from the three-course meal she and three other Waterloo West High School juniors prepared earlier that day and one room over.

After cooking quail salad, seared beef filet and lemon curd, a ham sandwich looks like, well, a ham sandwich.

It’s a cuisine contradiction for participants in the 2013 Iowa ProStart Invitational. The daylong restaurant competition, divided into culinary and management events, took over the first floor of The Hotel at Kirkwood Center on Monday. Students from nine different Iowa high schools – from Sioux City to Burlington – converged in Cedar Rapids to demonstrate their skills to 13 judges.

The kitchen component also includes knife skills and poultry fabrication, in which students separate an entire chicken.

Eight teams of no more than four students also do everything from developing and pricing menu items –West’s quail salad will run diners $22.95, the seared beef filet costs $65.70 and the lemon curd $14.70 –   to actually preparing the food. The catch? They only have an hour and two butane burners to do it.

“There’s been a pretty good mix,” says Andy Deutmeyer, executive chef at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids and one of eight culinary judges.

“A lot of creativity and a lot of talent that still needs some guidance and direction,” adds fellow judge Shawn Kiene, a chef and director of purchasing for Cedar Rapids-based Reinhart FoodService. Both Kiene and Deutmeyer are tasked with tasting desserts, which include an ambitious espresso crème brulee Kiene smeared on his plate in order to “break it down to the finest components” and a rice roll that melted the chocolate cup supposed to contain it.

“They’re working hard,” he says. “We also understand that they’re in high school.”

“I think they have the right idea on a lot of things, it’s just making the execution happen,” Deutmeyer follow, judging the penultimate dessert. “The competition is pretty even. They’re all at the same level.”

More than slice and dice

ProStart, a project of the National Restaurant Educational Foundation, is the name of a two-year curriculum that prepares students for culinary careers, whether as staff or managers. Students who complete the program, which includes 400 hours of work experience, can apply that credit to culinary schools throughout the nation.

“Being a great chef or a great cook is not enough in this industry,” says Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association. The association’s foundation arm sponsors the annual invitational. “It’s equal parts culinary and great management skills.”

Dunker is serving as a judge for the management competition. Participants from Des Moines Central Campus High School, Waukee, Davenport Community School District and Burlington High School will present their concepts for new restaurants. Each team will deliver a Power Point and showcase a display board detailing the type of restaurant, menu, décor and pricing. Students will then answer questions from judges about basic challenges facing a restaurant manager; issues such as what to do if two staff members are dating and break up right before a dinner rush, how to handle an employee who is chronically late and proper procedure in the event of theft.

The questions are ultimately about critical thinking and being a quality employee, Dunker says, and less about the restaurant world.

“We want to keep the best and the brightest but even if we don’t get them, we’re preparing them for someone,” she says.

Of Smith, Kalie Jurries,  Cienna Malone and Noelle Larson, the four young ladies on Waterloo West’s team, only Malone and Jurries want to pursue careers in culinary arts.

Family and consumer sciences teacher Tracey Hulme selected the students, the school’s first team to participate in the competition, based on their “interest and skill level.”

“I have not worked on anything quite so hard and they have put in so many hours,” Hulme says. “I didn’t expect it to be this detailed. It has been a great learning lesson for them.”

Judges will determine winners for the culinary and management competitions, schools do not have to participate in both and many opt not to, and the victors will go on to the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore, Maryland in April.

Given that it’s the school’s first year at the invitational, Hulme’s initial goal was only for the students not to finish in last place. But now she’s hoping for a top three finish, even though reigning state champion Waukee High School – albeit with a team full of rookies – is among the team’s competition. It's a dream she shares with Smith.

“They have done amazing things,” she says of her students. “They have come a long way and I’m very proud of them.”

As for the chefs, well, two words sum up at least two of the team members’ goal.

“Beat East,” Malone says, referring to their crosstown rivals from East High School, as Larson nods.

The results

In the end, Hulme got her wish but two of her students did not. Waterloo West took second place in the culinary competition, beating every team except Waterloo East. The Davenport team took top honors in management.

"I can't wait until next year," Smith said before she knew the outcome. "There's no reason we shouldn't get first."

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