Our culinary future is in safe hands.
That’s certainly my takeaway after observing the collective skill, imagination, discipline and passion on display at the 13th annual Minnesota State ProStart Invitational. The cooking competition, which drew students from 18 high schools across the state, took place March 7 at an all-day gathering.
But for the chefs-in-training participants, planning — and practice, practice, practice — began months earlier.
The Burnsville High School team — Abdikadir Abdullahi, Felix Bunnithi, Calvin Cheng and Hannah Topping — started their efforts in October; it’s the third year that the school has fielded a team. All four are enrolled in Burnsville’s popular Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Pathway, which is one of many pre-career disciplines offered by the school, and its courses attract nearly 300 students. They were led by coach (and BHS culinary arts instructor) Matt Deutsch and mentor Amy Carter, executive chef of product development for Lunds & Byerlys.
The competition requires a significant time commitment. The Burnsville team gathered once a week after classes in the school’s culinary lab for more than five months. For the last three months of 2018, they brainstormed menu ideas and nailed down recipe details. From January onward, Monday afternoons were devoted to challenging practice sessions, with Deutsch and Carter scrutinizing every aspect of their performance and providing feedback.
“People don’t think that this is like a sport, but it is,” said Carter. “It’s all about practice, skill and teamwork. And it lets them know if they have interest in it as a career, if they can take the pressure, the repetition and the attention to detail that goes into professional cooking.”
For the competition, teams must create an appetizer, entree and dessert, then prepare two plates of each; one is for tasting, the other for display.
Evaluation comes via a phalanx of judges — chefs, hospitality industry professionals, educators and other volunteers — across a wide range of parameters: knife skills, sanitation and food safety, flavor, menu and recipe presentation, cost control and more. (A second competition, on restaurant management, garnered five teams; each developed a business proposal for a new restaurant concept.)
It’s no cakewalk. At the competition, students have 20 minutes to set up their stations, and an hour to cook. There’s no electricity or running water; the only heat source is a pair of gas-fueled burners and the work surfaces are a pair of long tables arranged in a 10- by 10-foot space. Given the tight quarters and the ever-looming time constraint, teamwork is of the essence.
So is ingenuity. Team Burnsville tapped a stovetop camping oven for their dessert’s key component, an olive oil cake. They called upon a hand-cranked ice cream maker to create a mango sorbet, and filled a portable stovetop smoker with aromatics (tea, green onions, ginger and cilantro) to prepare the entree’s centerpiece, sea bass with bok choy.
The invitational, which filled a large conference center at the Mounds View headquarters of food giant Sysco, generated an impressive array of dishes: scallop crudo, lobster-filled tortellini with brown butter, honey-glazed duck breast with duck fat-fried potatoes, sesame-crusted red snapper with ginger-infused carrots.
“It’s insane to see how much better this gets every year,” said Andrew Kraft, chef/owner of the Bungalow Club in Minneapolis and a five-time ProStart judge. “So many of the dishes that we saw are restaurant quality. I’d take these cooks in my kitchen any day of the year.”
He’s not exaggerating. “I think Felix got six job offers,” said Deutsch with a laugh.
Burnsville didn’t have a monopoly on inventive cooking tools. Other teams enlisted a hand-crank blender and a pressure cooker, but perhaps the most resourceful was when Adrianna Winter of S.T.E.P. Anoka placed an upside-down round cake-pan inside a Dutch oven and improvised a flat-top grill to brown the raspberry-kiwi fruit Pavlovas she prepared for dessert.
Teams cooked in shifts, starting roughly every 30 minutes, with the action progressing for nearly five nerve-racking hours.
“This is very rewarding to be working with the students, and a lot of fun,” said Tim Murray, co-owner of Murray’s in downtown Minneapolis and the chair of the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation, the event’s sponsor.
Results? Elk River High School teams took home the punch-bowl-sized first-place trophies in both the culinary and management competitions, which means that Riley Hogan, Taylor Kline, Kaden Odegaard, Taylor VanHoutan, Ben Greni, Larkin Clem and Sarah Johnson will compete in the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C., in May, led by their instructor, Monique Sabby.
“You want kids to be excited for an industry that’s starving for talent,” she said.
In the culinary competition, Hopkins High School took second place and Pillager High School won third place, and in the management competition, Sauk Rapids High School won second place and Rogers High School came in third place.
As for the Burnsville team, Deutsch was pleased with its performance.
“They did great,” he said. He did, too; Deutsch was named the 2019 Minnesota ProStart Educator of Excellence.
Abdullahi is a senior, and is the only member of the team with previous ProStart Invitational experience. Bunnithi is a junior, and Cheng and Topping are sophomores. Will all three return next year?
“Yep,” they said in unison, smiling.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib