A few Vermillion High School students traded textbooks and red Tanager sweatshirts for sharp knifes and chef's attire Thursday as they competed in the school's ProStart cooking competition, sponsored by the National Restaurant Association on March 4.
The aroma of fine food being cooked in the high school commons by two teams of student chefs masked the intense pressure the young cooks faced that morning. Each team only had an hour to prepare a three-course meal. They battled time as they painstakingly cooked, stirred, diced, chopped and eventually plated their various dishes.
Adding extra anxiety to the competition were the judges who wandered about, each with a clipboard in hand, watching and taking note of how well each student performed that morning.
Andy Anderson of Hy-Vee, Jim Waters of Jones' Food Store, Shannon Fairholm, a member of the Vermillion School Board, and Mark Kneeskern, executive chef for Aramark on the University of South Dakota campus, served as judges for this year's competition.
A bit of expertise is needed to fairly evaluate the students' performance. The cuisine they were preparing could hardly be labeled as ordinary.
Judges watched as the team of Joe Peterson, Thomas Martin and James Protzman prepared Mediterranean salad with prosciutto, marinated sirloin steak, a toasted bulgur side and sautéed zucchini and red peppers. For dessert, they fixed and served grilled pineapple.
The second team of Molly LeCates, Megan Rernleitner, Nichole Christensen and Sam Robinson also received plenty of judges' scrutiny as they eventually plated their menu of mixed green salad with parmigiano crisps, Rosemary airline chicken breast with stuffed tortellini and lemon and white chocolate mousse with strawberries.
"ProStart is designed to be a careers-based culinary class, and besides doing this culinary competition, students also do a management competition," said the young chefs' instructor, Ilene Lerseth, family consumer science teacher at Vermillion High School. "And for the management competition, they actually had to design a restaurant, and they have to do everything from the coming up with business' basic concept, setting hours of operation, and coming up with nine menu items. They must also come up with two marketing schemes, and they put together written materials and a Powerpoint presentation."
The four judges who critiqued their culinary skills Thursday visited VHS the week before to grade the management portion of the competition. The team of LeCates, Rernleitner, Christensen and Robinson were named management winners.
Last Tuesday, the two teams faced off to see who would claim the honors awarded in the culinary competition.
Winners of the local culinary and management contests move on to state competition, scheduled Tuesday, March 23 at Mitchell Vocational Technical Institute.
"There was another class, called Cook's Training, that was a precursor to this," Lerseth said. "ProStart has only been offered in the state for about five years. The state competition is put on by the South Dakota Retailers Association, and this is the third year that they have offered the state competition."
All of the participating students from Vermillion had practically no culinary experience when they enrolled in Lerseth's class at the beginning of the school year.
By March, all were able to demonstrate a high level of skill in tastefully preparing and presenting a variety of rather complicated dishes.
"We do reviews of articles and recipes in magazines," Lerseth said, "and we try to look at photos that show how different dishes should look. Some kids do watch some of the programs on the Food Network, and I think that has helped create some interest in fields like this."
At least of the students involved in the ProStart competition, Megan and Nichole, have only been part of Lerseth's class since this semester began in January.
"I'll be willing to start with students at almost any skill level," Lerseth said. "I think this whole class is about bringing their levels up, so they don't necessarily have to be proficient at cooking to participate in this class."
Topics of the class include knife skills, serving food safely, different food preparation techniques – from sautéing and steaming to poaching, and we also have textbooks provided by the National Restaurant Association that support all of that."
Good old hands' on experience also serves as a good teaching tool. Lerseth's classroom, while not set up to resemble the typical kitchen fit for a chef, does offer appliances, utensils and other equipment to allow her students to learn by cooking.
The students also look for unique opportunities to practice the various cooking techniques they have learned.
"During the first semester, we set up a restaurant of our own, and we would prepare a breakfast once a month," she said. "That's an awful lot of fun. And we do some local catering; we just got done with parent-teacher conferences, and my students made about 400 cookies, and we prepared a staff meal for about 40 teachers last week one night."
The panel of judges also serves as the ProStart class' advisory council.
"They are a huge support to my students," Lerseth said. "They would come in and demonstrate knife skills, they would help show them the proper way to plate food, and one day Mark came in and talked with them about different recipe combinations. They are very active in helping our students learn."
Thursday, the panel of judges graded each team on their appearance, organization and cooperation. They noted how well the students used proper cooking procedures and followed safety and sanitation procedures.
After the final dish was plated and set on a table in the high school commons, only one highly important task remained for the judges – tasting.
"Product taste is 40 percent of the total score," Lerseth said. "They are graded on appearance, taste and product difficulty. So if you have a team that is trying something more difficult, they are going to get points for that."
The members of the two teams each formulated the menus of the various dishes they prepared and served Thursday morning, without guidance from Lerseth.
Deciding the various selections for each menu, she said, comes about after students experience creating a wide variety of different food items.
"We start by trying some different main courses, and then we'll throw a side in there, we'll try some different salads and soups, and some different desserts," she said. "It's very much a process of trial and error and tasting and seeing what they like and how they can improve each dish."