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Alta High culinary students win state, to compete at nationals

Apr 29, 2019 10:24AM ● By Julie Slama

At the regional competition, Jordan High ProStart students create a three-course gourmet meal in one hour, without electricity. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Alta High ProStart teacher Rachel Farmer knows how her students feel.

Farmer, as a culinary arts student, won state and competed at nationals. Now, Alta High culinary students in their inaugural season won the state championship March 12 and will have the opportunity to compete for the national title May 8–10 in Washington, D.C.

“It was my dream to coach ProStart,” Farmer said. “I grew up with this wonderful experience, gained confidence, made amazing friends, inspired me. I wanted to share that with my students. It’s pretty special.”

Alta High will represent Utah, competing in the culinary arts competition while Provo High, coached by Farmer’s teacher Diane Cluff, will compete in the management portion.

“So much of who I am, I owe to her. Even when I started coaching this year, I asked her some questions about the rules early on,” Farmer said.

ProStart is a national two-year program for high school students that develops talent for the restaurant and food service industry. Students learn culinary techniques, management skills, communication, customer service skills, math, nutrition, and workplace and food safety procedures. They also learn effective leadership, performing under pressure and responsibility.

In Utah, there are about 70 ProStart programs. Students try out to make their school’s culinary team and then compete at one of the three regional competitions against about 12 to 14 teams. They are judged on techniques from knife safety to menu planning and from creating a business plan to taste of the prepared meal.

At Alta High, the program has 15 students; 12 tried out for the team, and five — team captain and junior Lillian Tilt, team manager and senior David Evans-Olsen, sophomore Annaleece Shomaker, senior Korbin Wies, and sophomore William Wilkinson — were selected. 

“The students selected the menu. They went to Barnes and Noble, looked at cookbooks, and meshed a lot of recipes they liked together to create original recipes. It was amazing the amount of work they put in to brainstorm their menu and then hours to practice it on top of learning how to prepare it. They spent hours after school and on Saturday mornings,” Farmer said.

Alta created and prepared their winning “Taste of Asia” menu with a sunomono salad with ahi tuna, filet mignon with sweet potato and chard, and a coconut wanton cone and passion fruit mousse.

Preparation and practice started in the fall because teams competing at the Feb. 21 central region against about 12 other teams need to practice ProStart rules, which limit teams to two gas burners and no electricity, to prepare two of the same three-course meals consisting of an appetizer, entrée and dessert — one for judges to taste and the other for display. 

At the competition, which is reminiscent of watching a competitive cooking television show, typically four students work together to dice and mince and the fifth acts as manager and timekeeper, ensuring the team is on track to meet the 60-minute time limit. 

Farmer could only watch what her students learned at this point; there is no coaching from outside the ring where students are cooking.

Teams are judged on taste, presentation, technique, time management, knife safety, sanitation, food cost, menu planning, creating a business plan and more. After the competition, judges provide feedback.

That’s what Jordan High’s ProStart team was looking forward to at regionals after they prepared their meal of a cucumber wrap salad, lemon chimicurri chicken with a rice pilaf and grilled vegetable medley, and a raspberry and chocolate millefeuille.

“We looked up ideas and bounced ideas off of each other to come up with our menu,” Jordan senior Betty Dumsa said.

Teammate junior Enoch Miller said the team practiced about six hours per week and had a base plan.

Junior Heidi Dector also said they were ready to improvise if something didn’t go well.

“It is really hot in here, with so many cooking at the same time,” she said. “The chocolate with our stacked dessert didn’t temper, but we were able to make it work.”

Their teacher, Shauna Young, said that through the preparation and competition, they learned problem-solving and teamwork.

“They practice everything over and over, figuring out how to make things work if they forgot things or need to change them, like knowing they can thicken up jam with starch if they need to,” she said.

Melva Sine, the president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, which oversees Utah’s ProStart program, said the 20-year program gives students real-life skills.

“These competitors are able to think on their feet, know how to season or flavor, make a plate look as good as it tastes, work as a team to make a decision, and at the same time, know the proper knife safety, grilling, food handling, sanitation procedures,” she said. “It definitely will help them when they work and own their own restaurants.”

Typically five teams advance to state from each region, which included both Alta and Jordan. This year, ProStart teams will be honored at a May 23 gala honoring the best in the state and the caterer will try to replicate Alta’s winning menu to serve the teams. 

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