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Culinary competition hones kitchen skills for area high school students

From left, Gina Myers, Artrem Rudenko, Austin Parr and Tyler Kimbrell prepare French onion soup, duck breast and chocolate mousse for the Ferris High ProStart team. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
From left, Gina Myers, Artrem Rudenko, Austin Parr and Tyler Kimbrell prepare French onion soup, duck breast and chocolate mousse for the Ferris High ProStart team. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Four students, three courses, two burners and one hour: It might sound like the countdown to a hot-plate special in a college dorm room, but it’s actually the recipe for the state’s biggest high school culinary competition.

High school students from around the state compete Saturday in the annual Boyd Coffee ProStart Invitational, including teams from Shadle Park, Lewis and Clark, Rogers and Ferris high schools.

The students have been practicing before and after school for months to get ready.

As the time ticked down during a recent practice session, Austin Parr, a senior and captain of the Ferris High School culinary team, estimated they had cooked the meal they’ll be making for the competition some 20 times since January.

Although his team is getting a bit weary of the spice-crusted duck breast, French onion soup and mocha chocolate mousse, students hanging around after school aren’t.

“We get a lot of people stopping by when they smell the aromas,” said Louis Huang, a manager at Churchill’s Steakhouse who serves as a mentor and coach for the Ferris culinary team.

He took on the role as mentor for the culinary team as something of an accident, after first coaching the management students.

The management teams are the unsung competitors in this annual event. They aren’t racing the clock to serve a three-course meal with two burners, but they do have to pitch a new restaurant plan to a panel of judges.

The team presents its idea and design – complete with menus, cost analysis and restaurant floor plan – and then answers questions about the feasibility.

Huang knows his way around a kitchen. He learned at the elbow of his mother, an Asian chef.

“As a kid when I was grounded, I got dragged to work with mom,” he says with a laugh. “I was grounded a lot.”

Because he is not a classically trained chef, Huang says he’s had to do some studying of his own in the last couple years to prepare with the students.

The menu, cooking and competition preparations are really student-driven. Huang says five students planned the menu, perfected the recipes and shopped for ingredients. They’ll have to safely transport and check in all of their ingredients and keep food safety in mind while they make their meal.

A panel of restaurant industry experts will judge the competition – including chefs, restaurant owners and food critics.

Huang says he thinks of his role as a way to pay back the mentors who helped and inspired him in high school. As the students practiced, he checked their work and asked questions.

He’s no Gordon Ramsay. When the team didn’t get the gruyere cheese on the French onion soup melted before time ran out, he asked whether they should start plating it sooner, but that was all. (Besides, he promised his mom he wouldn’t yell.)

Huang also serves on the board of the Washington Restaurant Association Education Foundation, which sponsors the event. The students at each of the schools have restaurant professionals who serve as mentors to the culinary teams. They also study the ProStart curriculum each day with teachers at their school.

ProStart is a two-year restaurant school-to-career program that has been taught in Washington schools for the past 11 years. The curriculum is nationally accredited and prepares students for careers in the food-service industry.

Students who compete juggle jobs, sports, school work and personal lives to prepare for the competition.

The top three winning teams in each category will receive scholarships for their efforts. This year’s competition includes a special “Triple D” prize that will be judged and presented by representatives of the area restaurants that were featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

The top finishers will head in the national competition in Overland Park, Kan., in late April.

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