Tip of the chef’s hat to youth
This past weekend I was honored once again to be asked to be a tasting judge for the Colorado ProStart Culinary Competition at Western Colorado Community College. This is my third year participating as a culinary judge and a wonderful opportunity for me to personally observe (and taste) what is happening in the culinary world at the high school level.
Each year, I am blown away by the professionalism, teamwork and level of accomplishment these young junior and senior high school students are capable of. The quality of food they are able to create in an unfamiliar kitchen, with only two small butane burners, in one hour is truly remarkable. In tight hectic kitchen quarters, under the scrutiny of wandering culinary judges, the four teams are required to prepare two identical appetizers, entrées and desserts. One of each dish is plated for the tasting judges (lucky me), while one of each is for display (no touching). The menus these young culinary enthusiasts design compare easily to any white linen restaurant menu. Frequently during the judging process, I have to remind myself that teenagers are in fact the creative producers of the beautiful cuisine we sample and critique.
This year four teams representing high schools from Aspen, Fruita Monument, Palisade and Youth Entity competed against each other on the WCCC campus. Teams consisted of three to four members with an optional team captain/alternate. As much as a first-place win and a trophy was within reach for each of the participating teams, the value of this competition lies in the fact that it was a preliminary test to their possible performance at the upcoming state competition in Denver this spring.
The dedication and time commitment of these young students is admirable. Whether any of these high school students pursues a culinary career is irrelevant, as the rewards for participating in a program such as this are unmeasurable. Thinking back to my youth, I wish I had been presented with an opportunity such as this. If you are old enough to remember Home Economics, as I most certainly am, you, like me, probably remember it as a required one semester class that was overall uneventful. We certainly didn’t discuss confit, roulades or demi-glace.
Bay Scallops and Langoustine, Squab Confit and Salsify Roulade, Lemon and Thyme Gnocchi, Pistachio Lavender Crusted Lamb, Rainbow Quinoa Salad, Pancetta Wrapped Tenderloins, Shrimp Scampi with Handmade Noodles, Chocolate Espresso Bavarian, Zesty Orange Meraki, Fig and Honey Chantilly Cream with Almond Shortbread, and Tiramisu were just a few of the menu items I was lucky enough to taste and critique. Poor me, I know.
As impressive as the menus were, one has to take into consideration the restrictions and the environment of the actual competition. A lot of forethought is expected of these young culinarians. All ingredients, supplies and cooking equipment are packed up and transported by each team. No running to the pantry when an ingredient is forgotten or when something has gone awry. They are not just judged on their creative menus and attractive plating. Exemplary knife skills and successful execution of technical cooking methods are just part of the expectations. Throughout their allotted cooking time, the teams are assessed on their teamwork, cleanliness, organization, sanitation and lack of waste.
If I was given the power to turn back time, I am sure Colorado ProStart is a program I would have loved to have had the privilege of participating in. Culinary career interest or not, the skills and experience each of the team members takes away from this program are lifelong.
First, second and third place prizes were awarded to the top three teams. However, I left WCCC Saturday afternoon with the impression all four of the teams gained much, much more than just bragging rights.