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High-school chefs get taste of competition in Spokane Valley

Members of Bonney Lake High School team, from left, Emily Rash, Morgan Demich, Romica Watson and Jessica Luckey work together to prepare their entry during the Boyd’s Coffee ProStart Invitational at the Mirabeau Park Hotel in Spokane Valley on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)
Members of Bonney Lake High School team, from left, Emily Rash, Morgan Demich, Romica Watson and Jessica Luckey work together to prepare their entry during the Boyd’s Coffee ProStart Invitational at the Mirabeau Park Hotel in Spokane Valley on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)

Given 60 minutes to produce a three-course meal starring dishes most people would struggle to pronounce, the team from Bonney Lake High School fell into a familiar groove Sunday.

Cooking on two butane burners, and with no electrical appliances at their disposal, the four young women performed what they’d rehearsed for months.

Appetizer: seared scallops on a cauliflower puree with tomato concasse and homegrown sprouts.

Entrée: braised lamb osso bucco on polenta with root vegetable orbs and brunoise mirepoix.

Dessert: pumpkin spice mousse with salted caramel, toasted walnuts, shortbread and white chocolate.

“We were great, we felt very prepared, we practiced a lot,” said team captain Emily Rash, a sophomore.

Jessica Luckey, a senior, added, “And nobody was rushed.”

The Bonney Lake team won first place among Washington high schools competing in the ProStart Invitational, a contest for students learning culinary techniques and management skills through the national hospitality program. Sunday’s showdown at Mirabeau Park Hotel & Convention Center in Spokane Valley was organized by the Washington Restaurant Association Education Foundation.

“I’m a football fan, but I actually like today better than the Super Bowl,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the restaurant trade group.

Inside a ballroom, Anton surveyed the main attraction: bustling work stations where young foodies, dressed in chef’s whites and toques, raced the clock to finish their meals. Aromas from the cookstoves mingled in the air as professional chefs and instructors strolled past, judging the knife skills, sanitation and organization of each team. Another panel of judges waited in a separate room to taste and rate each dish as it emerged.

In another part of the hotel, students studying culinary management faced judges to pitch their concepts for a restaurant. They covered cuisine, decor, kitchen layout, food costs, marketing – everything a potential investor would want to know. Lewis and Clark High School took third place.

More than a decade after the program began, the students today are pursuing their dreams with an impressive level of sophistication and imagination, Anton said.

“The kids are doing things today that we didn’t see when we started the program,” he said, crediting their teachers and mentors as well as the country’s embrace of everything gastronomic.

“If they’re truly passionate about it, they have a chance to connect and keep going,” Anton said. “We need to get them into the kitchen so they can get to the real-life performance of producing food. There’s no real way to replicate that in a classroom.”

Louis Huang, owner of Spokane-based Prodigy Arrow, mentors the Ferris High School team. A couple of Ferris students involved in ProStart went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America, said Huang, who was named the program’s mentor of the year Sunday.

“You end up with enthusiastic kids who really enjoy cooking,” he said. “If nothing better, we give them some skills where they can cook at home, and hopefully someone becomes the next Top Chef.”

This year’s Ferris team is young and inexperienced. None had competed before, and they were stymied by turnover in their ranks. But captain Will Hope, a junior, said he was ecstatic about Sunday’s performance.

“It was probably our best run-through thus far,” Hope said after plating the dishes: seafood ravioli, seared halibut with couscous and honey balsamic Brussels sprouts, and chocolate ricotta cannoli. “I think the stress was a good motivator.”

The team had prepared the entire meal a dozen times before, staying after school for hours to hone their skills and teamwork.

“Everything was textbook where we wanted to be,” Hope said. “You just have to try to keep your cool and work through it, because freaking out is not going to help you.”

Joshua Martin, a chef instructor from the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community College, helped judge the students’ knife skills.

These kids, he said, are a cut above.

“It blows me away, how high a level they really are,” Martin said. “Some of us who have been in the industry 10, 20, 30 years would have challenges doing the same things these students are doing here today.

“You get inspired seeing what these kids can do.”

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