High school cooking teams stir their talents for judges

It wasn’t on purpose, but somebody forgot the milk they were supposed to bring. It was for the appetizer — sausage-stuffed jalapeno poppers with cheese sauce.

There was milk for the dessert — sopapillas with whipped cream filling and chocolate ganache — so they had to decide: cheese sauce or whipped cream filling?

There was hardly any time to deliberate, so they voted in favor of the whipped cream filling.

“We were really nervous,” said Valeria Garcia, 17, a Fruita Monument High School junior and member of Fruita Team 1, which competed Saturday in the ProStart high school regional cooking competition hosted by the Culinary Arts program at Western Colorado Community College.

The event featured seven regional teams vying to compete at the 14th Annual ProStart Invitational March 1 in Denver. Four students on each team created an appetizer, entree and dessert in one hour and with two portable burners and no electric appliances.

They were judged on a range of criteria, from how the food looked and tasted to how they worked together in the kitchen, their safety and sanitation practices, and how well they created recipes and menus, complete with cost projections.

And beyond the tangible criteria, there was the ephemeral: how well they adjusted and thought on their feet when, say, they didn’t have enough milk.

“We had to think fast,” said Toni Gonzalez, 17, a Fruita Monument junior and member of Fruita Team 1, adding that Saturday’s competition was her and her teammates’ first ever.

They spent weeks creating their recipes and practiced the full menu three times before Saturday’s competition. Each team member is interested in a career in culinary arts.

The judges, staff and former students of the Culinary Arts program were exacting in their assessment. They noticed the missing cheese sauce. But that kind of critique is good for students and the scrutiny that customers will someday give their creations, said Dan Kirby, director of the Culinary Arts program.

Beyond preparing for future careers, being on a culinary arts team gives students the opportunity to feel the camaraderie of a kitchen, said Lauren Slaff, coach of the Durango High School team.
“They have become my family,” Slaff said. “Amazing relationships have developed out of this.”

The Durango team placed third Saturday — Aspen High School earned first and Palisade High School second — and the four young chefs moved in dance-like harmony around each other as they navigated the kitchen and their menu.

“It’s good practice,” Garcia said. “It’s something we all love to do.”


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