Two local high school cooking teams recently showed they have what it takes to be top chefs at a state cooking competition.
Quitman High School and Clarke County Career and Technology Center student chefs placed first runner up in the ProStart Sate Culinary Competition in Jackson.
ProStart, a division of the National Restaurant Association, is a national career-building program for high school students that pairs culinary educators with restaurant industry professionals to teach real-world skills. This year’s competition was a match between 11 Mississippi high school culinary teams, who were competing for a portion of the $900,000 scholarship money available.
This being the first year for Clarke County Career and Technology Center to offer Culinary Arts, all the students were beginners and thus weren't expected to qualify to participate in the tough and strenuous, three-qualifying-rounds of competition.
"These students put on their aprons, rolled up their sleeves and began to plan, organize, study the 37-page rule book, and practiced, practiced, practiced until they mastered their three-course meal which wowed the eight executive chef judges, with a 60-minute food preparation performance," said Suzanne Raley, instructor Each team member had clearly defined tasks that were rehearsed until they had perfected their team performance.
“I believe what set this team apart is their ability to work seamlessly together, and I was confident in their ability to create something unique and colorful and to execute it well,” Raley said. “Once we settled on the menu, we must have practiced it more than 20 times.”
The group stayed after school for hours cooking together, tasting, adjusting and refining each other’s recipes, and of course, washing all those dirty dishes.
Lakine Shirley was in charge of the challenging task of creating a classical salad that would be visually appealing, delicious, and impressive to the judges.
The team wanted to plate the salad with a great deal of eye appeal, so Lakine practiced until she refined a unique parmesan cheese web to encircle the colorful spring mix. She then went to work on mastering a recipe Melinda Rivers created for honey vinaigrette. The team decided to have Lakine top the salad with fresh strawberries and blueberries, marinated in an orange-rum flavored sauce.
Mary Martin was tasked with creating an eye-appealing protein that also tasted delicious. After practicing with poultry that tasted good but lacked “plate presentation”, Mary adapted a recipe from “The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook” to create a pan-seared and braised Flank Steak Roulade, stuffed with a sautéed mixture of Cremini mushrooms, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon, red bell peppers, Vidalia Onions, marinated artichoke hearts, and spinach, then rolled up with Provolone and Gouda Cheese. To plate an award-winning entrée, the student chefs chose to showcase the steak roulade by cutting it on the diagonal, creating spirals and arranging it uniquely with the side dishes.
Bethany Rivers was in charge of the starch and vegetable, and worked diligently to perfect the recipes, along with her mother, Melinda Rivers, who volunteered as a team mentor. For starch, the team chose a “Cheesy Creamy Orzo”, mixed with fresh parmesan cheese, green peas, bell peppers, green onions and tomato concasse.
“All of us tasted and then tweaked it,” Rivers said, describing how the group decided the pasta dish needed less ginger and more cheese, adding that special flavor. Rivers also parboiled fresh asparagus spears and then marinated them in a lemon vinaigrette glaze with minced garlic, onion and peppercorns. With an eye for detail, eye-for-detail, Rivers designed the entrée plate presentation, resulting in a high score for Plate Presentation competition category.
“We chose for our dessert, an ace-in-the-hole … baking a cake, on top of a cooktop, in a pot,” Raley said.
Describing how the team could only use two portable butane burners and no electricity, Raley said the dessert had to be unusual, delicious and impressive.
Kylie Odom stepped up to the challenge.
"With the guidance of her mother, Marsha Odom, one of Quitman’s finest pastry chefs, we knew we would have a winner,” Raley said. To guarantee a delicious cake, Kylie Odom used her great-grandmother Mammy’s Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing recipe.
"Kylie used her artful eye in decorating the cake by striping it with the mouth-watering icing and topping it with a beautiful, fresh pansy bloom," Raley said. "She finished by garnishing the plate with fresh blackberries and raspberries that she dusted with a touch of sugar.
Everyone at the competition was amazed and talking about the team that cooked a cake on top of a burner, in a pot.
"If you know Kylie Odom, then you will not be surprised that when approached by the curious others, she just smiled, but didn’t speak a word of her secret method," Raley said.
Biff McCabe, event judge and National Culinary Specialist at the Art Institutes of Colorado, said the Clarke County team was very impressive, especially being first year culinary students.
“This was an amazing team,” McCabe said. “It was a delight to watch them on the floor.”
McCabe emphasized that judges award points on more than just taste and presentation of food. Knife skills, poultry fabrication, distribution of labor, organization, sanitation practices and teamwork are critical.
“The Clarke County team has a really cohesive team and it showed,” McCabe said.
“The only team that scored higher than Clarke County’s representatives was Biloxi High School, who has won the state title four times in the last five years, and who is trained by international chefs from several of the coast casinos,” Raley said.
Each of the students was awarded nearly $7,000 in scholarships to culinary schools around the nation for winning first runner up.
“I am so very proud of each of these young ladies and feel blessed to be able to spend time with them," she aded. "Their futures are bright and I look forward to witnessing their many accomplishments. Who knows, one day I may be watching the Food Network channel and see some of our Clarke County chefs turning their dreams into reality”.
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