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Tomorrows culinary artists show off their kitchen skills at ProStart competition

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Stacey Kildea, Melissa Lee and Ashley Pomales, culinary artists and participants in Wasson High Schools ProStart program. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Stacey Kildea, Melissa Lee and Ashley Pomales, culinary artists and participants in Wasson High Schools ProStart program.

It's Monday morning, about 11:30. Three young women scurry around two crowded tables in the kitchen of The Warehouse restaurant. One frantically spoons fruit into a delicate bowl made of sugar. Another lays an arc of small tomato slices in front of a salad. The third struggles to tie the frenched bones of three lamb chops together with chive-string.

All the while, a stern male voice barks out time. There is palpable electricity in the room as the ladies encourage each other to hurry, but you can hear the stress in their voices. They are locked in a heated battle with the clock, and they are losing. Two minutes, 90 seconds; one minute, 30 seconds; time is up. Another minute passes before they finish the presentation.

Fortunately, this was only practice. Three days stand between them and the real thing.

The three young women are Stacey Kildea, Melissa Lee and Ashley Pomales, students at Wasson High School and participants in the school's ProStart Program, a yearlong class for aspiring chefs taught by Ms. Glenna Wood. ProStart offers those interested in a culinary career the opportunity to get an early start. They cook in class, learn methods and techniques, and visit with professional chefs in their area. ProStart also stages an annual competition for scholarships to the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University's College of Culinary Arts.

I had walked in on one of Stacey, Melissa and Ashley's final practice runs before they went head to head with 23 other ProStart teams from around the state. The contest was held this past Thursday, March 11, at Johnson and Wales' Denver campus. Winners of each state contest earn scholarship money and advance to a national final in Orlando, Florida.

Ashley and Stacey, both seniors, and Melissa, a junior, are ready for the challenge. They have been practicing intensely for the past five weeks, under the watchful eye of their chef-mentor, the Warehouse's James Africano, the man with the timer. The trio designed their own menu, consisting of salad, entre, and dessert. They will have only one hour to prepare the entire meal and present it to a panel of judges for tasting.

At 6:30 Thursday morning, Melissa, Ashley and Stacey, accompanied by a handful of supporters, board a school bus and head to Denver. The head official at Johnson and Wales tells them to begin, and the race is on. Ashley's steel glints, Stacey begins the sugar bowl, and Melissa tackles the lamb.

From the get-go, judges, photographers, and cameramen swirl around all the teams. Taste alone will not carry the day. The judges also grade their technique, food handling, organization, cleanliness and professional details that include food costs and recipes.

Stacey, a two-year ProStart veteran, chose the sugar bowl to hold julienned tropical fruit tossed with crme anglaise. Accompanying the crunchy vessel is a dessert ravioli, with blackberry pure in the dough and a blackberry and mascarpone filling. Melissa, another aspiring chef, picked lamb for the group's entree. Her Colorado-farmed chops surround a three-color tower of quinoa, a cracked grain with ancient roots in the South American Andes.

Ashley designed their salad -- a tangy affair featuring mixed greens, apples, and sherry vinegar. She dreams of a bakery and sweet shop all her own, in Manhattan's Times Square, "because sweets ... just make people happy." Showing a baker's touch, she stuffed her salad into a cleverly conceived tuile cone made entirely of Asiago cheese.

Sound like a lot to accomplish in one hour? That's just the half of it. ProStart rules allot each team only two burners and two cutting boards. So the trio has to figure out a schedule for cooking pasta, vegetables, three different portions of quinoa, sugar syrup, lamb chops and two sauces on only two burners. The resultant ballet of pots and pans looks like the culinary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moreover, no prep work can be done before the clock starts, save station setup. Stacey makes her raviolis from scratch, Ashley handles most of the knife work, and Melissa cleans an eight-bone lamb rack, then butchers and frenches the chops while on the clock, like an Iron Chef of high school students.

Ms. Wood and Chef Africano, forbidden from coaching their students, watch nervously a few feet away. As time ticks down, the tension mounts.

Wasson's women prove unflappable. Not even a nasty cut keeps them from perfecting their dishes and finishing with a few minutes to spare. They race one complete meal off to the judges, and set another out on a long bank of tables where each team displays its artistry for all to behold. The finished product turns heads among the crowd gathered at the presentation tables.

Although they don't finish in the top three, the women agree that this was about more than winning. In Ashley's words, they were out to prove that "high school students can cook healthy food that adults will eat." After five weeks of intense practice, early mornings, late nights and sore backs, they proved they could do it very well.

This reviewer was duly impressed and has just one thing to say: You go, girls!

-- David Torres-Rouff

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