At 4 o’clock on a snowy Tuesday afternoon, Teresa Twichel, Lexington Campbell, Jacy Powell and Kazmira Martinez are cooking away in Mrs. Haley Barker’s room. The team of four are preparing to compete at the Montana ProStart Invitational the weekend of March 3 and 4 in Missoula, Montana at Missoula College. The teams compete in two categories: Culinary and Management.
The purpose of the Culinary Competition is for the competitors to demonstrate their culinary knowledge, skills and creative abilities. The teams are judged on their ability to prepare a three-course meal consisting of a starter, an entrée and a dessert. Judges from the foodservice industry and post-secondary schools will evaluate their performance.
Two identical three-course meals must be prepared using a minimum of two cooking methods. After the team introduces themselves, they have 20 minutes to prepare all their ingredients for their mise en place. Then they have 1 hour to cook their meal. The major challenge is no electricity is supplied so only manual equipment is allowed. Also each team brings butane burners for cooking.
In the next minutes judges critique not only the taste of their meal but look at their organization and skills required to prepare their dishes. Then finally each team is evaluated on how well they clean up. Recipes must be formally presented in a folder with text typed neatly accompanied with photos.
The Management Competition is more business oriented where teams develop a new restaurant concept and present their ideas. Each group submits a written proposal for review as well as present their concepts. Ideas of the type of establishment, the food served, costs, and staff requirements must be presented. The concept is located in a fictitious place: ProStartville with specific demographics and points of interest.
Chuck Schommer, owner and food and beverage director for Buck’s T-4 Restaurant in Big Sky, Montana brought the competition to Montana in 2004. Belgrade High School approached him when he was the Executive Chef at the Yellowstone Club to see if they could start a ProStart Program in Montana. This two-year high school program was started by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation unites the classroom with the food service and restaurant industries.
These days as the chair of the Montana Restaurant Association, Schommer expressed, “We are trying to bring people from our industry into the classroom to talk to the kids. We want to give them first-hand experience and knowledge.”
Schommer jokingly shared that he failed to get a job as a bag boy when he was 14-years-old. Instead he took a job dishwashing in a restaurant. Over 40 years later, he said, “I never looked back.”
At Laurel High School, Mrs. Barker is guiding her team for their first practice run of executing their menu of Cream Cheese Balls with Bacon on Crostini, Top Sirloin with Blackberry Sauce accompanied with Steamed Potatoes with Sauteed Carrots and Bell Peppers finishing with a Chocolate Mousse.
On this day, Mrs. Barker allowed the girls to use the gas stovetop to cook their meal. With a crunch on time, with members needing to go to work and to attend on-line classes, it was more important to at least try to execute the menu the girls had developed. With research on the Internet, the team knows they want to cook a steak for their main entrée. Otherwise they are still experimenting.
After cooking the meal and plating the food, the girls gather to evaluate how they did. Mrs. Barker attempts to guide the conversation without telling the team what they should do. The girls consider another cut of beef and comment on the size of their potato. They decide to attempt an alternative dessert as the mousse did not set.
But perhaps the most valuable stories come out when talking to each individual team member. Kazmira, the captain of the team comes from a Mexican family whose life centers around food. She talks of how she has cooked with her grandmother and mother. She mentions enchiladas and cumin as everyday food items. She brings up menudo when talking about soup. The spiced hominy and tripe concoction are completely unknown to many of Kazmira’s classmates.
Lexington did not really cook before starting the ProStart program. Though she had worked in a restaurant in the front of the house, she found herself in the kitchen. She said, “I liked the chaos.” She liked the quick action in the cooking world with end results of pleasing people.
For Jacy, it is baking that has enamored her. Making cupcakes and cakes and then decorating them bring her joy. As a picky eater, the program has opened her eyes to many different foods, and though she may not have tried every ingredient, she has learned to prepare them.
Finally, Teresa is grateful for the culinary classes, as she was able to make a Pavlova she learned from Chef Rich Boggs. The chef from Caramel Cookie Waffles came into the classroom to demonstrate this elegant meringue based dessert. She proudly shared how she replicated the dessert at home for her family.
When asked about the upcoming competition, the girls are optimistic. They are looking forward to seeing what the other teams create along with being able to work with each other. Mostly they value what they have learned realizing it will be an important part in their lives.
During the first weekend in March, nearly 50 students from Belgrade, Bozeman, Chinook, Drummond, Whitefish and Laurel will compete in the Montana ProStart Invitational.
As I walk out of the Laurel High School in the dark as snow is falling on the ground, I think of how Kazmira, Lexington, Teresa and Jacy had just flavored my hopes of our culinary future.