Belgrade High School brought home a state championship Sunday making it their seventh win in this particular realm in the last eleven years. Their win wasn’t on a football field or a basketball court, but rather a 10x10 kitchen set up at Missoula College. Their equipment? Two butane burners, no refrigeration and an array of knives. The criteria? Taste, skill, teamwork, safety and sanitation in addition to management and problem solving.
You guessed it, we’re talking about the Montana statewide ProStart cooking competition.
The Belgrade cooking team of five students bested teams from across the state with a three-course menu including a scallop trio with accompanying sauces, rack of lamb and a triple layer waffle dessert.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the students, with some tense moments as the results were announced.
“The [judges] called third place and we all sighed in relief that we weren’t third, and when they said second and it wasn’t us, we were all kind of nervous,” team member Lucina Mullikin remembered, “We didn’t think we made it, we didn’t think we were going to place. And then they called ‘Belgrade’ and all of us were like, WHAT?!”
“It was very surprising because there were some really good dishes there,” said Liah Newby, who was in charge of preparing the appetizer.
The students worked since November to develop their menu, said ProStart teacher, Bev Tompers who has taught the ProStart cooking class for the past eleven years. First the students picked their main ingredients, then things got creative.
“They chose lamb,” Tompers said, “We went from there and paired different things with it and we look up flavor combinations...[using] a thing called a ‘Flavor Bible.’”
While the lamb ended up on a bed of asparagus, piped with sweet potatoes and topped with sweet potato crisps and a brown butter sauce, the road to the students’
scallop dish wasn’t so seamless. To start with, the original dish wasn’t scallops at all but a Montana-shaped sushi square.
“We were going to use either smoked salmon or trout,” said team member Austin Rollins. “We were trying to do somewhat of a Montana theme for that, but the [Montana-shaped] cookie cutter wouldn’t really work. It didn’t look like Montana, it just looked like a rectangle.”
After abandoning the sushi idea, the students who wanted to keep seafood on the menu, settled on scallops.
To refine their menu, the students relied on their mentors, concessions manager at the Belgrade Special Events Center, Debbie Finkbeiner and Buck’s T-4 executive chef, Scott Mechura without whom the students all agree they would not have been able to take home top honors. The mentors helped with plating and teaching the students knife skills.
“They come in and help us refine, look at things,” Tompers said, “What can we change, how do we make this a more cohesive menu so things flow...and it worked out very well.”
ProStart is a nationwide two-year program, designed by the National Restaurant Association to help teach students the skills they will need should they decide to pursue careers in the restaurant industry.
“It helps instill a work ethic at a young age, and it maybe instills some interest in our industry,” Chuck Schommer, the Chairman of the Montana Restaurant Association Education Foundation and co-owner at Buck’s T-4 Restaurant said.
Schommer who has helped the ProStart curriculum grow from four schools to 16 schools in the state during the last decade, hopes that it will provide students an alternative to four-year colleges. Certainly, for the students at Belgrade High, the program has proved to be a draw.
“I’ve always wanted to go into culinary,” team dessert chef, Sky Newberry said. Inspired by television shows like “Chopped,” “Cupcake Wars,” and “The Great British Baking Show,” Newberry transferred from Manhattan High School to Belgrade High School in part because the school offered ProStart.
Stephanie Robinsen, who has “always had a passion for cooking,” also hopes to pursue a career in the restaurant industry. As the team’s manager, she said the program and competition has helped her hone her communication skills.
The students will take the skills they’ve learned through the competition Sunday to the national competition at the end of April in Providence, Rhode Island, where they will take on teams from across the country. It’s a much more competitive stage with potential for scholarship money for students looking to go to culinary school or go into the hospitality industry.
“When you see what some of the high schools do at the national event, even me as a chef...the dishes are amazing,” Schommer said.
In the meantime, the students will be working to incorporate judge feedback like making their sweet potatoes less salty and refining their chimichurri sauce. They will also be fundraising for their trip, with more details on how to support the students to come.
As for what the students gained in addition to their on point cooking skills, they all agree teamwork.
“We definitely got closer through [the competition] too, picking on each other,” Newby said with a laugh from the group. “Especially Austin.” (Who happens to be the only male on the team.)