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Culinary students compete

Frank Fisher, of the Record staff

Many people dream of owning their own restaurant, at one time or another, often as a result of their love for cooking. Three Park City High School students, though, are living their dream of becoming chefs — or potential restaurant owners, as they represented PCHS in a state-wide culinary competition.

For the last three months, Jeannine Atherton and Cassidy Gossett, both seniors, and Spencer Jirak, a junior have been preparing for future leadership positions in the food industry, under the direction of Career and Technical education teacher, Lynda Wright.

Their culinary skills were put to the test on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Utah ProStart culinary competition. Thirty-one teams from high schools around the state had exactly one hour to prepare a three-course meal using two small burners. No fancy ovens. Only the most basic tools are allowed, and the preparation was all done on two eight-foot folding conference tables. The triage like facilities made advance planning and testing almost a necessity.

Only one team from this competition will advance to the National ProStart completion in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Melva Sine, the president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, said that students who complete the two-year ProStart program, sponsored by participating schools, including PCHS, students come out ready to work in a management level position in the food industry– or qualified to start their own restaurant, having learned the behind-the-scenes work of running a restaurant.

No one can talk to the competitors during that hour, including their instructors. "I can’t even speak to them," said Wright. "That’s going to kill me." She watched from a distance, pacing a bit, but seeming amazingly calm and confident about her students, who are in their first culinary competition. It is Wright’s first also.

ProStart chef/mentor, Peter Given, worked with teams from around the state, suggesting subtle spicings best combinations of food, presentation, and a multitude of suggestions which might stick with future chefs for their entire careers. Given, who has attained the status of a Certified Master Chef, one of only 16 chefs in Utah to be so honored, has been a chef since 1966. Given, who is originally from Australia, has a calming accent, but his eyes follow everything going on about him with great intensity. "He’s given us so much guidance," Gossett said of his mentor.

On the sidelines are Gossett’s parents, Harold and Rita. Harold said Cassidy might have become interested in cooking because Rita used to own a restaurant. "I am nervous," Harold said. "I want Cassidy to do really well."

The trio from Park City served seared sea scallops, mentioned on their menu as gently seasoned with garlic and ginger, resting on a bed of fresh wild greens and crispy cellophane noodles. The second dish, spiced pork tenderloin, was to complement the entrees, spring rolls with chocolate coconut ganache.

Two portions of each dish had to be prepared, one for the judges to taste, the other was judged on presentation, tantalizingly sitting on tables for judges and spectators to view, and appreciate the wonderful aroma wafting about –but not to be tasted. Results of the winning team will not be available for weeks.

When teams arrive, chefs check the temperatures of the ingredients competitors will be preparing. Should be temperatures not be within strict safety guidelines, teams could be disqualified. Michael Bailey, one of the judges who was testing food temperature, said of the safety of the restaurant industry, "Restaurants are extremely regulated. They are a whole lot safer than our kitchens at home."

Lindsay Kinateder, in the first graduating class of ProStart, is on break from Johnson and Wales University’s culinary program, came to the ProStart competition to offer students encouragement. She said it is a misconception that judging food is highly subjective, saying that appearance, food temperature, flavor combinations and knife skills are critical aspects of judging a meal. She is considering becoming a restaurant critic for a newspaper.

Jirak, Gossett Atherton and Wright relaxed when the stopwatch hit 60 minutes. As they packed their coolers for the return trip to Park City, Wright said of being a silent spectator, "I’m exhausted, but I think it’s a job well done. The four were talking about a possible dinner once they got back to Park City. Would they prepare their own meal? "NO!" said Jirak with a semi-serious grin.

"These kids are awesome," said Wright. "It’s amazing what these kids can do. Amazing."


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