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Budding chefs prepare to put skills to the test

The Baltimore Sun

Ryan Meliker, a senior at Centennial High School and captain of the cooking team at the Applications and Research Lab, estimates he has made the same three-course meal 40 times.

His four-person team, plus one alternate, has become a well-oiled machine, able to prepare and plate, in the allotted hour, an appetizer, main course and dessert. And these are not simple dishes.

The appetizer is crab empanada with a julienned salad, fresh guacamole and tomato butter sauce; the main course is Muscovy duck with crispy potato cakes, vegetable brunoise and a warm shiitake mushroom truffle oil vinaigrette; the dessert is saffron ginger panna cotte with a mango raspberry and blueberry compote, a mango and raspberry coulis, and a crisp vanilla cookie.

Last week, the team ran through the meal once again, from peeling potatoes and parsnips to garnishing the finished product, as it prepared for the seventh annual National ProStart Invitational, a cooking competition that will pit these budding Maryland chefs against about 35 of the best student teams in the country.

The group is leaving today for San Diego and will compete Friday before returning to Maryland on Sunday. Expenses are being paid by the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation.

The ARL team qualified to represent Maryland in the national cook-off last month by besting 19 other state teams in the annual Maryland ProStart Student Invitational at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt. This was the fourth year of the state competition, and the fourth year the ARL team has taken first place.

Each year, the team goes to the national competition, and each year it does a little better there, said Elaine Heilman, the teacher in charge of the team. Last year, the ARL team took fifth place, and she's hoping to place even higher this time.

Members will take their cooking tools, including knives, pans and bowls, as well as most of the food they will need. If the food is improperly stored or transported, the team can be disqualified.

For that event, as for the state one, the teams will prepare two plates of each course, using no electricity and a butane burner in place of a stove. They have 30 minutes to get ready, an hour to cook, and a half-hour to clean up. Judges take into consideration the complexity of the dish, cooking methods, food safety precautions and taste. Students must provide a cost analysis of the dishes, as well as a framed menu to place on the table.

Knife skills are judged in a separate part of the competition.

"You definitely try to push your limits as far as you can," Meliker said of the menu, which has to be ambitious, yet realistic. Meliker, who will attend the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., in the fall, said the experience is helping to prepare him for a future that he hopes will include restaurant ownership.

The ProStart program is a national high school curriculum that prepares students for culinary and hospitality careers. Only students in the ProStart program can compete in the ProStart competitions. About 1,600 schools in 47 states, including 75 in Maryland, have ProStart programs, and the number is increasing quickly.

At the start of the school year, Heilman invites the students in her ProStart classes to audition for the cooking team. She's not looking for specific cooking skills, she said. Instead, she wants to know that the high-schoolers have the physical stamina, organizational skills and focus to cook an entire meal without pause, working as a team.

The chosen team, with help from chef Marc Dixon of Columbia's Caf? de Paris, works together to create and fine-tune a menu, and practices about twice a week after school.

Tyler Weedon, a Mount Hebron junior, said he's been "cooking since I was little," and hopes to own a restaurant some day. He's in charge of the crab empanada appetizer, and boasted, "I start the meal off right."

Alex Morris, a junior at Mount Hebron, said he's always enjoyed cooking at home, and hopes to turn that hobby into a career. As he separated thyme and rosemary for one of the last run-throughs, he said the California competition "should be a blast."

Karen Lovalvo, a junior at Centennial High School, is in charge of the dessert, and has become an expert at working within the competition's time restraints. "At certain times, certain things have to happen," she said.

"It's difficult, but I'm loving it," she said of the program. "You're learning new stuff every day."

Alternate Eric Olean, a Mount Hebron junior, has to learn the entire menu, in case he needs to fill in for anybody. He tried out for the team because "I just kind of like cooking," he said, and he's enjoyed learning specific cooking techniques.

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