Student chefs save the fish heads |

Student chefs save the fish heads

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyColby LeFebvre prepares a leek shrimp sauce to go with sea bass during practice Monday for a student culinary competition Wednesday in Denver.

EAGLE-VAIL ” Colby LeFebvre doesn’t waste fish heads.

He decapitates a Colorado striped bass like a seasoned angler and sets the head aside for stock like any good chef would. He pulls out its pin-like bones with pliers, filets it, portions it for two people and slits the skin so it won’t curl up in a hot pan.

There’s a good chance some judges will be measuring those portions at today’s Pro Start chef competition in Denver, where LeFebvre and three other Battle Mountain High School seniors hope to beat out 25 other teams for the second year in a row.

Ryan Walker holds a steel knife sharpener at eye level and drizzles a thin stream of melted sugar, water and corn syrup around it in a spiral. It hardens instantly, and he pulls off what looks like a golden spring from a Swiss coo-coo clock.

“You got to move fast,” he says, reheating his gooey pot of sugar to loosen it up for a couple more spirals. These will decorate the desert ” a granny smith apple pancake with walnut streusel, cranberry orange compote, caramel sauce and a mascarpone mousse.

Cam Lewis is sauteing three kinds of mushrooms ” porcini, crimini and trumpet ” which will soon be placed on top of a black truffle goat cheese crostini with a champagne, tomato and basil vinaigrette; looks like some pancetta will be in there too.

Ian King is running an herb-lined sheet of fresh pasta through a hand-cranked roller, which will soon be turned into tortellini with a shrimp filling.

This was just a test run a few days before the competition, and the students still had a few kinks to work out. With only two burners and a couple crowded banquet tables, it was a little tough to finish it all in just an hour. Tom Walker, Ryan’s father and a professional private chef, looked on and critiqued their performance.

“They’re working at a high degree of difficulty here,” Walker said. “These kids are using cuts and techniques that professionals have trouble with.”

While taste and presentation are important, these chefs will be graded sternly on sanitation, safety and technique. LeFebvre saved that fish head because a judge will be looking for it ” because it’s so called “useable waste” and shouldn’t be thrown away.

When Ryan Walker cracked an egg on the table, Pro Start teacher Sharon Wible reminded him to crack it on the cutting board instead.

Tom Walker examined Lewis’ pan of mushrooms. “See how big that one is?” he said, pointing to a bite that looked a little larger than the rest. “Chef’s always struggle with consistency.”

Every time one of the chefs broke away from their station with a knife in hand, they said, “Sharp behind!” to warn other team mates.

“They’ll be watching for good teamwork,” Tom Walker said.

Judges will also analyze their menu, their cost estimations, their ingredient list s” basically the things any chef would need to have a good hold of to run a restaurant.

With a few minutes left on the clock, the chefs focus on meticulous plating” forming the mushrooms in a tight steel ring, stacking the fish filets just right on a bed of julienned vegetables and surrounding them with a delicate shrimp sauce, spooning just the right sized dots of cranberry compote around the desert.

They sit down and examine them together. Do you like the new design for the dessert? Are those veggies hiding the tortellini? Is there too much dressing surrounding the salad? How does it taste? Too much salt in the mushrooms?

LeFebvre said the team is concentrating on overcoming clumsiness and organization problems this year. They won the state competition last year, but think they can do better than their seventh place at the national competition in Charlotte, N.C.

They’ve also learned a lot from their mentor chefs ” Tom Walker, Paul Ferzacca of La Tour and Todd Rymer with Colorado Mountain College’s culinary school. They all said the test runs have been pretty good, and they’re starting to feel like real chefs.

“The more you’re around food, the more comfortable you become,” LeFebvre said. “You gain a familiarity with the food.”

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

Support Local Journalism