Before pushing the start button on the kitchen timer, set for 45 minutes, the students of the Wilbur Cross culinary competition team are typical teens laughing and cracking jokes.
Then the time keeper asks if they’re ready. And they get serious.
That’s because they know that when the timer’s alarm goes off, signaling that those 45 minutes are up, the team of five students will have to have properly cooked and plated a three-course meal. They will have to have demonstrated that they have properly sanitized their work area before, during and after cooking.
That they haven’t cross contaminated their food. That they’ve cooked everything to proper temperature.That they can chop, dice, and julienne vegetables, while also demonstrating that they can properly dress raw meat and keep their kitchen waste to a minimum.
But they’ve got this. They’re champions.
The team recently took first place honors in the Connecticut ProStart Invitational, which is sponsored by the Connecticut Restaurant Association, in the culinary category. Their counterparts in the management competition also took first place. The students earned trophies, certificates of achievement and college scholarships for their efforts and the right to represent their state.
At the end of this month they will head to Portland, Maine, for a regional competition. The big dance, which is sponsored by the National Restaurant Association, comes in late April in Charleston, S.C., where the students will compete against teams from all over the country in the national ProStart Invitational.
Chef Nathaniel Bradshaw described the national event as an Iron Chef-like, kitchen stadium competition, that features judges, bright lights and lots of stress.
For the management team, Bradshaw likened it to the television show Shark Tank, where students have to make their pitches of a from scratch restaurant concept including a marketing strategy, and impress judges who know the restaurant business inside and out.
“It’s like the Olympics,” Bradshaw, who heads up the school’s ProStart program, said of the national competition. He should know. Two years ago, he was recognized with a ProStart James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award
Practice Makes Perfect
On a recent afternoon when many students were heading home, or to other more traditional after school programs, the culinary team’s members were preparing to cook.
They’ve been cooking the same dishes—their competition menu—nearly every afternoon, even on spring break, since the start of school.
That menu consists of pan seared New England scallops served with green pea puree, shallots, tomato vinaigrette, pea shoots and radish; bacon-wrapped, seared pork tenderloin, julienne vegetables, polenta sticks, green peppercorn sauce and a mushroom cap; and a chocolate mousse dome made of milk chocolate, orange Feuillantine crust, bittersweet chocolate mousse and fresh berry coulis.
The team has 60 minutes to transform raw ingredients into delicious food during competition. Chef Bradshaw, who serves as the main coach along with baking and pastries instructor, Chef John Valus Sr., requires the students to practice their skills with just 45 minutes on the clock. The reason: He wants them to perform well under pressure.
On competition day, when teams from all over the country are cooking at stations close by, Bradshaw said nerves happen and he wants them to be ready. Even on practice day things can go wrong.
Sometimes you forget the stock you need. Sometimes your gloves are too big, as was the case for 17-year-old senior Naicha Aguayo. Or the gloves rip twice each time you put on fresh ones. And worst of worst, your bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin hits a sizzling hot pan wrong and starts to stick to the pan.
Both things happened to Kyle Sundland, a 15-year-old sophomore. He began to panic. Bradshaw coached him to scrape the meat out of the pan and ditch the burned bacon pieces. Kyle rewrapped the bacon, got the tenderloin back into the pan and things settled back down.
The team members cooked like the well oiled machine they have become, knowing their roles, but also knowing when to offer assistance.
Team captain Genesis Padilla, 18 and a senior, kept the ship steady by reminding everyone that certain sanitation rules have changed. Her parents own a restaurant in town called Nelly’s. She said she hopes to possibly take over that business and open her own one day.
She’s the one on the floor reminding team members to wash fruits and vegetables before they’re chopped. Never mind that she was cooking peas for the puree, while simultaneously melting chocolate for the multi-step dessert that she would be assembling and plating.
Acting as timekeeper and manager, Coty Gueye, 17, is a senior and an aspiring restaurant manager who plans to attend Johnson & Wales University. She was in charge Wednesday of constantly calling out the time and making sure everyone had what they need. But no one was frantic or confused as they navigated hot pans and sharp knives.
They worked quietly and methodically from start to finish even as Bradshaw ran back and forth between the cooking team and the management team, which was in another room nearby, to ask questions and check the time. The team also had to carry on with their work even as people popped in to tell them how delicious everything smelled.
With minutes to spare, every course was meticulously plated, work stations were cleaned and when that was done, they put their hands up and stepped away.
Details, Details, Details
While their culinary counterparts were busy trying to perfect their dishes, the management team was seeking its own level of perfection. The team had come up with a winning restaurant concept that is called Apothecary Cafe. The idea behind the cafe is healthful eating and the alchemy of mixing signature drinks made with shrubs, according to team captain Jessica Rose.
Rose didn’t mean those plants growing in your yard, but the the handcrafted drink mixers that are created with fruits and sugar to make a vinegar syrup that can be mixed with club soda. The idea came from the team’s interaction with the owners of the Union League Cafe, whose Chef Jean Pierre Vuillermet serves as a mentor to the culinary team. Vuillermet’s wife, Robin, and Robin’s sister, Cheri McKenzie, serve as mentors to the management team.
In addition to coming up with a restaurant concept, they have to create a design layout for the restaurant, a menu and a marketing strategy, and be able to justify the choices they’ve made before judges. The design work that the team does is often done with the help of other teachers at Wilbur Cross like technology teacher Anthony Latella.
Rose, a 15-year-old sophomore, is a young team captain but Bradshaw said she got the job because of her hard work and dedication.
“The key is a lot of research,” she said of the work the management team does.
Bradshaw said students who participate in the culinary arts program, particularly the ProStart teams, tend to have a certain level of focus and dedication. Some of them have to navigate the city bus system, a two hour trip for some, just to get home after practice.
When teams from Wilbur Cross first started making it to national competition five years ago, they finished 41st. Last year they finished 13th. Bradshaw is looking forward to this year’s competition, but what he’s most proud of are the life and leadership skills that the students who come through the program gain that they can use.
He’s also proud of the opportunities they receive to go to school. He said he and all the teachers and mentors who assist with the teams put in the work because the students put in the work.“It’s a lot of work,” he said.
So why would teenagers give up their time after school and subject themselves, on purpose, to such stressful conditions?
“It’s just fun,” Luis Galindo, 18, said.