The heat from the stove was nothing compared to the pressure of the ticking clock."Twenty-three minutes," a timekeeper shouted at the Taos High School Culinary Arts …
Jesse Moya/The Taos News
The heat from the stove was nothing compared to the pressure of the ticking clock.
"Twenty-three minutes," a timekeeper shouted at the Taos High School Culinary Arts team as they shuffled through the kitchen putting in the finishing touches on sauces before they start plating.
For the culinary team, the upcoming National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's ProStart competition is as heated as any sports state competition around. The team of 10 students will travel to Albuquerque on Monday (March 4) to test their culinary and management skills against 17 New Mexico teams for a chance to compete at the national level for scholarships and all the bragging rights in the kitchen.
"It's good living skills," said culinary arts instructor and team sponsor Benji Apodaca. "It helps out if they want to pursue this as a career and it's better than eating ramen noodles all through college."
Apodaca's team has been working since the beginning of the semester to hammer in their talents for the annual competition. Both culinary and restaurant management teams will compete at ProStart going through front and back of the house operations. Front of the house refers to the dining room and management portion of the restaurant while back of the house refers to the kitchen.
Restaurants go through several design, menu and business planning steps before the food hits the grill. Half of the Taos High culinary crew is responsible for the operations of a mock restaurant.
ProStart management teams must design this theoretical restaurant, the menu and plan for how successfully to run the business. The team must showcase their restaurant as if it were opening night and they had to fill the house, down to an optional social media mock-up page,.
Students are asked real-life situations by judges and scored on how they adapt to sudden changes of status quo such as a lack of staff or a patron choking.
"We learn a lot of business skills as well as communication skills," said sophomore Jordan Montoya.
Montoya competed in the previous year's competition and is confident in the team's abilities for this year.
For the most part the management team sits discussing and planning their business model while clangs and shuffling noises echo in the "back of the house."
"Kitchens are hot, they can get frustrating and they're really tight in space," Apodaca said. "Hot food, hot plates. Communication is a big part."
While the front of the house is buzzing with business, the back of the house is where the magic happens. A team of five students only has one hour to cook a three-course meal for the judges on two stove-top gas burners with no electricity or running water.
Adding to the challenge of a hot kitchen in close quarters, students must work with one another to complete the three-course meal, paying attention to every last detail including the various types of knife cuts used in the kitchen.
"I'd say time management is probably one of the biggest challenges [in the kitchen]," said senior Alejandro Medina. "You have to keep an eye on every little thing that's going on in the kitchen and the timing of each food product."
Medina is a veteran of the competition and knows what it takes to succeed behind the burner's flame. Last year, the culinary team took second place in the competition. They hope to take home first place this time and challenge other states at the national level.
The culinary team must itemize their equipment and ingredient list down to the last stalk of celery for the competition. Once the timer starts, each team has one hour to make their dishes and must work diligently against the clock to have everything properly cooked and plated for the judges to see and taste.
Students spent several weeks determining the menu and what to serve the judges. The process is a team effort that all have to learn. If one is cooking the lobster, another person has to be able to step in at a moment's notice.
"It's a team - there's no 'I' in team," said team captain Irene Thomas. "I think the best thing is we're all having to fit in that small space. So the teamwork is probably the biggest aspect of the whole thing."
Thomas said the cooking and management teams become an extended family of sorts through the competition season. They spend several afternoons together practicing and cleaning the kitchen, getting ready for the big event.
According to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, about one in every 10 Americans works in the food or restaurant industry. The foundation's ProStart program brings students face-to-face with real-life situations and experiences in the field and educates them on the various ins and outs of working in a restaurant.
"This gives them a good start because they get their service aid manager and food handler certificate," Apodaca said. "It gives them a hands-on reality check working with others."
On the line for the competition is thousands of dollars in college scholarship opportunities and the edge up on the competition in the job market.
The winner of the state contest heads to Washington, D.C. for the national competition.
The Taos High School Culinary Arts program began in 2004 and Apodaca has been the head in the kitchen ever since. The program is self-funded as far as food costs go and fundraising is needed, especially for the ProStart teams who cook their fine dishes at least twice per week.
Students learn everything from tools and utensils to different cooking techniques in the class and are able to taste their creations after the stove shuts off.
Each year brings different students to the program and some stay until they graduate. Whatever the case, Apodaca ensures they remain focused in the kitchen with their knives and skills sharp.
"They've evolved," Apodaca said. "We started off slow and kept growing and growing and getting better and better. It's come a long way. We have three days to get it done and I think we've got it nailed, it's just a matter of keeping consistent."
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