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Cookin’ in Orlando

Scott N. Miller
NWS ProStart Cooking BH 4-22 Vail Daily/Bret Hartman Battle Mountain ProStart team members Matt Thompson, 18, Andrea Knight, 16, Brendan Russell, 17, Evan Eves, 18, have tasted the same meal 30 or 40 times since January.
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Imagine tasting the same meal 30 or 40 times since January. Sounds boring, right?

Well, if the meal is a Waldorf salad, hazelnut-crusted venison loin with a sweet potato cake and a dessert of Grand Marnier crepe soufflé, it’s easy to fend off the mac-and-cheese blahs.

Since the first of the year, a quartet of Battle Mountain High School students has been preparing that gourmet meal over and over in preparation for competition in state and national events in the “ProStart” restaurant management and cooking program. The program, in which Colorado was a pioneer, is now in its sixth year. From its start as a regional event with schools from five states competing, the event, which is affiliated with the restaurant industry, is now a national phenomenon, with nearly 40,000 students from 1,055 high schools in 41 states participating.

The national competition – which features the 41 state champions – is set for Monday in Orlando, Fla. At stake is glory, and, more important, buckets full of college scholarship money.

The team from Battle Mountain – junior Andrea Knight and seniors Evan Eves, Matt Thompson and Brendan Russell – will represent Colorado at the competition. The team last month traveled to Denver and won the state title with its gourmet meal.

This year’s team has some big shoes to fill. Last year’s team also won the state title, and took second at the national competition. This year, more schools are competing, so the competition promises to be even more intense.

Chef sweats the small stuff

Paul Frezacca, owner and head chef at LaTour restaurant in Vail, was the “mentor” chef for both teams. He started last year when his nephew – a team member – asked for his help. He continued this year because, he said, he enjoys it.

“It’s been very, very rewarding,” Frezacca said. “It’s neat to give back to the industry after what the industry has given to me.”

Frezacca attended his last practice with the students on Tuesday. As he watched the students prepare different elements of the meal, he’d offer both advice and orders. Vegetables need to be more finely chopped. Even a fine string of fat must be trimmed from the venison tenderloin. Wipe off a knife while resting it on a cutting board, not while holding it. Every utterance is met with the response of an old-world apprentice: “Yes, chef.”

The meal – two plates of which must be prepared within an hour – is as delicious as it sounds. And the team has a chance to bring home the big prize from Florida, Frezacca said.

“Remember the little things and you’ll be fine,” he told them.

Little things mean a lot. Teams are judged on the quality and appearance of the meal, of course. But cleanliness and food safety is important, too. And, “We’re judged on if we smile,” Thompson said.

Thompson is in his second year with the program. Like all the students, he’s interested in continuing in the restaurant and hospitality business, having already worked summers at restaurants at Vail and Red Sky Ranch. ProStart has been a good way to learn more about the business, he said.

And business is the focus of the program. “It’s not really a culinary program,” Mary Mino of the Colorado Restaurant Association said. While the competition involves creating a great meal for two in an hour, a lot of class time is devoted to financial management and other business-related subjects.

The focus on business means many students can earn college credit for participating in ProStart. More important, students on successful teams can earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

Last year’s Battle Mountain team came home with nearly $130,000 worth of scholarships, Frezacca said. And there was $500,000 worth of scholarships at stake at this year’s state competition. A lot of those scholarships were school-specific, so students couldn’t take advantage of all of them, but ProStart does offer a big leg up for students.

Knight plans to spend her senior year at Johnson & Wales University, the culinary arts college with a campus in Vail. Her participation in ProStart has ensured she will receive at least several thousand dollars in scholarship money for that venture.

Extra vanilla bean?

For now, though, the team is focused on the trip to Florida and the complexity of transporting gear and food halfway across the continent.

In addition to the students and their luggage, the team is taking five crates of food, utensils and other gear to Orlando. “We’re only provided with two burners,” Weisman said. “Getting everything there is a lot of detail.”

That detail involves even tiny stuff. Tuesday, Weisman wondered if the crew should pack an extra vanilla bean, just in case. As Frezacca told the team, tiny stuff will probably have a big impact on the outcome of the competition.

Mino noted that when a team from Eagle Valley High School won the regional competition a few years ago, relatively few schools were involved. Mentored by Grouse Mountain Grill chef Rick Kangas, the team from Gypsum won easily.

“There were teams from three other states there,” Mino said. “They couldn’t touch the team from Eagle Valley.”

The fact that the area has so many great restaurants and chefs gives ProStart students an edge in competition, Mino said.

While there are great chefs in bigger cities, the mentors from those areas don’t seem quite as involved, Mino said. “Vail’s a tight community; kids can really get to know their mentors,” she said.

Frezacca won’t be able to go with the team this year, much to his regret. Weisman is going along, of course, as is Mino.

“I can’t watch the competition, though,” Mino said. “Mostly, I just want them to go and have a great time.”

That seems to be a given. Eves, who said he started studying culinary arts because he heard girls like guys who can cook, summed up the team’s feeling. “It’s pretty exciting to be representing your school and your state at a national event,” he said.


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