Young chefs cook for keeps
EAGLE-VAIL – Ready, set, go the four teenagers sprang into action. With 60 minutes on the clock, Colby LeFebvre gutted a red bell pepper and then whipped out a blow torch. He touched the blue flame to the pepper’s skin. It blistered and turned black – not at all appetizing – but when LeFebvre removed the charred skin, the flesh that remained was a sweet, succulent variation of its formerly crunchy self. On either side of LeFebvre, Melissa Hines combined homemade granola with butter in a frying pan, and Andy McNeill rapidly chopped parsley. Next to McNeill, Cam Lewis sliced a lemon in half and began to juice it. It could have been a scene out of a professional kitchen in a five-star restaurant, but in reality, the four cooks were in Sharon Wible’s Battle Mountain High School classroom, running through a final practice before today’s ProStart Culinary Student Invitational. Sweet chopping styleThe four students, which make up the ProStart team, headed down to Denver today where they will pit their culinary expertise against 25 other schools in a statewide cook-off.
“This should be fun,” Hines said. “I’m not as nervous as I was last year, and I feel like our menu is really strong.” Asparagus and carrots were added to a steamer, and seconds later steam began to snake from the vessel. “Steam is good,” Lewis said. “It’s six-and-a-half minutes after steam starts coming out that my eggs are done – quail eggs.”Quail eggs will garnish the salad course of the sophisticated American-style menu the students created with the help of Wible and two mentor chefs, David Sanchez and Paul Ferzacca. As the teens worked furiously on two wooden tables, Sanchez perched himself on a tall cabinet where he could see all four cooks at once. “Way to use the chopping technique,” he said to one cook.”Remember to change your gloves,” he reminded another. Sanchez gives the team the benefit of eight years of experience as a chef at Allie’s Cabin, in Beaver Creek. Mentoring for two years, Sanchez joined Paul Ferzacca, owner and chef of La Tour in Vail, who has mentored ProStart teams at Battle Mountain for four years.
Cooking for collegeThe team has been practicing since January but ramped up it schedule over the past few weeks, toiling for three to four hours every evening.”It’s very intense, but if they win, it’ll be worth it,” Wible said. “They have more skill than I think I’ll ever have. They’re been really dedicated, and they work well together.”A first place will get the team to the national competition in Charlotte, N.C., but simply placing will ensure them scholarship money. McNeill, who participated on the ProStart team last year, estimated he’s wracked up about $10,000 in scholarships stemming from his team’s third place win last year. He plans to use that money to go to Johnson and Wales University, a culinary school in Denver, next year. Lewis and LeFebvre also plan to pursue careers in the restaurant business, but Hines, who works at La Tour, is still up in the air.”Three minutes left in set up,” Hines announced.The team thanked her for the update and scrambled.
“Go wash your hands,” Sanchez reminded the teens, and they rushed to the sinks.But Sanchez won’t be able to advise the team when they’re in competition. Granola solutionAlthough taste and presentation may seem the hallmark of a good meal, they only make up 20 of 100 points the team is trying to gain. Instead, judges place more emphasis on sanitation – did the cook touch raw chicken and then handle salad? – and technique – is the chef chopping herbs the right way. And because any professional kitchen will be filled with prep cooks, line cooks and chefs, judges will also look at how well the team worked together. Away from the kitchen, judges will also scrutinize the team’s menu, which includes recipes, prices for the ingredients and how much the dish may cost in a restaurant. Bending over her work station, Hines hit a snag – her granola was breaking instead of stretching to form a tart crust. But she wasn’t fazed.”I know this granola better than I don’t know what,” she said. “It’ll work out.”
She was right. The clock ticked away, but the team finished with time to spare. With food plated and garnished, McNeill surveyed his team. “Are we all ready?” McNeill asked. His teammates hollered their affirmation. And with the fruits of their labor in hand, the cooks marched out of the kitchen ready to wow the world through food.Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado