Sizzling with Skill: ProStart Chefs Take Center Stage at State Contest

Sizzling with Skill: ProStart Chefs Take Center Stage at State Contest

By Tyler Dahlgren

Located right off of Sorensen Parkway on the western edge of campus, Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts is easy to find. The site of Thursday’s ProStart State Culinary Competition, high school chefs from near and far gathered on the second floor of Building 22 to put their skills on display in front of a panel of judges and fans.

Those with a misplaced campus map or a natural navigational deficiency needed not worry. The savory smells that sailed through a gusting morning wind provided all the direction they’d need.

Nine teams of chefs laid it all on the line throughout the morning, cooking up delicious three-course meals with the hope of advancing to the next week’s final three and, beyond that, the national competition. The chefs came from down the street a ways and they came from The Panhandle. And they came to North Omaha with a plan.

“We do a bit of reflection before we leave the school, and then when we get here, right before they get on the floor, we have this special cheer that we do that helps get their adrenaline going,” said Papillion La Vista South educator Louise Dornbusch, who has 15 years of experience with ProStart. “Our routine also helps them relieve some stress. We have them do some deep breathing and then we just send them out on the floor and pray that all goes well.”

All did go well for Dornbusch’s team, The Southside Troublemakers, who cooked their way into Wednesday’s final three in Lincoln.

“It’s a little stressful at first, being in front of the judges and everyone, but once you get going and in the motion, then you calm down and it gets a little easier,” said PLVS senior Isaiah McGraw. “And then, you’re just cooking.”

Scottsbluff’s team, The Bearcat Associates, made the lengthy drive across the state a day in advance. The school was represented by a team of chefs of Thursday and then three teams at the State Management Competition on Friday. Their teacher, Hannah Liptac, anxiously watched as her chefs plated their main dish, a delectable chicken and waffle benedict, just in time. With time management playing such a large role in the competition, precision is important.

“It’s challenging, with the rules, not being able to talk to them during the competition,” said Liptac. “But they know what their plan is and they practice it thoroughly, so we just have to have faith in them. I also have my husband here, who keeps me from going insane, so that’s important, too.”

Like Scottsbluff, the Holy Smokes team travelled through Wednesday, all the way from their hometown of Hemingford, to the big stage under the bright lights. Their four chefs were relaxed, even singing along to the background music and shaking shoulders along with the tunes between kitchen tasks.

“I just told them to pretend like they were just cooking at home,” said their teacher, Suzanne Neefe. “I told them to have fun and just enjoy the cooking process.”

The contest is, after all, meant to be enjoyable. And for those in attendance who had made the unwise decision to forego breakfast, the morning was tantalizingly mouth-watering. Three teams prepared food at a time, and the event was broken into three sessions. While precision under fire is crucial, communication between the chefs is of monumental importance, too.

“It’s essential, and they plan their timeline pretty meticulously all the way through the final minute,” said Liptac. “I saw good, smooth communication between our team, which was awesome. It’s vital. You have to have it.”

Dornbusch’s crew was one of the more vocal throughout the morning. She, too, stressed the importance of fluid communication.

“It is so important that they know where everybody stands, and, for them, it’s a time,” Dornbusch explained. “Even saying something as simple as ‘Finish pie’ or ‘Pie crust’ or whatever, they know then that it’s time to move on to the next thing. They know and they’re letting their team know that they’re on time.”

In the industry, serving up hot food is a fundamental goal, said Casey Craven, a ProStart teacher for PLVS and a former competitor himself. Plating one course too early, even by a small amount of time, can be costly. Cold food is a no-no which communication helps to combat.

“Having that timing, planning and that communication to figure out where each person’s at, and effectively and efficiently managing time so that everything comes out done and hot is important,” said Craven, who greatly enjoys passing along the lessons he’s learned to this point in his career to current ProStart chefs. “I love being able to show them things that I have learned that would have benefited me in the program, or helped me during the competitions or just in life in general.”

To work with food the way these chefs do requires both a love for the ingredients and a passion for turning those ingredients into a work of art.

An extremely delicious work of art.

Aside from learning to function in a group setting at a high level, developing such a love and a passion is one of the greatest benefits to competing on stages like the one chefs stepped on to Thursday.

“They’re learning to look at food as more than just something they’re eating,” said nationally-acclaimed research chef and State Culinary Contest Tasting Judge Forrest Waldo. “They’re learning to look at the colors and to look at the flavors and the balance and the textures.”

You’ll find many people who gravitate towards food have an innate love for it, Waldo continued.

We all enjoy a late-night pizza and tacos on Tuesdays. Trips to the Golden Arches or fried chicken after Sunday morning church and chicken wings with a football game on the tube. But this love, what these ProStart chefs were displaying on Thursday, is deeper than that.

“The love for foods is an appreciation of the right vegetable at the right time of year, the right cut of pork or chicken, or an affinity for different types of seafood,” he said.

Starting young in competitive cooking can also provide direction, potentially towards career paths in the industry. Waldo, for example, started cooking in a bar owned by a guy his dad knew at the age of 14. He met a chef who took him under his wing some-time after and never looked back.

“I look at today as kind of paying it back,” said Waldo, who was joined in the tasting room by Donald Moss, UNL’s, and the United States’, for that matter, first culinology graduate. “Plus, it’s always good to be excited around fresh faces and the energy here, everybody wanting to do a good job, it’s just fun.”

Craven, who spent the morning mentoring young chef after young chef, knows very well the benefits of ProStart and competitions like the state contest. One of the messages he relays to his team the most is the versatility of the skills they acquire in the kitchen. Most, if not all, translate directly to the real world.

“Between the effectiveness of working with others, communication, organization and setting themselves up for success, it’s so worthwhile,” Craven said. “Coming to competitions, they run into so many networking opportunities to meet people in the food industry, in the marketing industry.”

Roaming the floor, for example, were owners and managers of metro-area restaurants.

“Really, anybody and everybody that has had an idea of where they want to go or what they want to do in life, food-related or not, has met somebody at these competitions,” said Craven. “It’s one of the many joys that comes with it, the tight-knit community it builds.”

The end-product speaks for itself. These are high students putting out high-level cuisine, complicated courses that emerge from all their hard work and execution exceptionally divine.

“When someone does something to food that I have never experienced, that I have never done, or, more importantly, that I would never have thought to do, that really excites me,” said Waldo.

Nebraska ProStart is in more than 50 high schools and has more than 700 students enrolled. On average, nine out of 10 ProStart students pursue a culinary track after high school or jump right into the restaurant industry.

So while Plattsmouth, Roncalli, Papillion La Vista South, Hemingford, Lincoln Southeast, Lincoln North Star, Scottsbluff, Lincoln Southwest and two teams from The Career Academy in Lincoln vied for the three top spots at the state contest on Thursday, the program’s roots run deep across Nebraska throughout the year.

Educators witness, right in front of their eyes, their chefs grow, both as students and as human beings.

“They learn to take ownership in what they’re doing,” said Dornbusch, whose team far and away exceeded her preseason expectations. “They each have their own personalities, and they’ve grown, together, this year.”

Comradery, as Craven puts it, makes this event, and their team in particular, special.

“They work really well together and they enjoy what they’re doing,” he said. “This year, especially, we’ve noticed they’ve put every bit of their heart and soul into these. Just seeing them happy and proud with what they’ve presented, that’s one-hundred percent the best part.”

In between the stress of the high stakes and the glances at the clock, the room at Metropolitan Community College was filled with plenty of smiles, sighs of relief and applause.

“We’ve had so much fun preparing for this and putting together this menu,” Liptac said shortly after her group of chefs from Scottsbluff beat the clock. “They’re just such a fun group of kids, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Finally, she, too, let out a deep breath. A sigh of relief of her own.

“They’re awesome.”

*Check back for complete results from the State Culinary Competition, which will be added to this story when available.