A taste of life as chef

Young cooks feel heat in contest

“I can’t tell you how hard these kids work.” Peter SclafAni, Hammond High School mentor  and executive chef and owner of Ruffino’s in Baton Rouge

Six minutes left,” called out a judge, as the chefs plated their dishes, carefully spooning crawfish sauce over crab cakes and fried polenta and molding piles of Swiss chard into cylinders.

Along with the aromas of shrimp, catfish and duck breast sizzling in pans, a silent intensity filled the air at the 12th annual Louisiana Seafood ProStart Student Competition.

Teams of students from 17 Louisiana high schools from across south Louisiana came to the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner on Tuesday to compete for more than $870,000 in scholarships to be awarded to the top three teams on Wednesday.

At the culinary competition Tuesday, the teams of four — all dressed sharply in white chef jackets and hats — competed in hour-long heats with two other schools.

They first had to demonstrate their knife skills, showing the judges their best julienne, brunoise, mine and chiffonade techniques as they broke down whole chickens and filled bowls with peppers, onions, carrots and tomatoes.

The judges observed closely with clipboards in hand, while other judges looked on to make sure the young chefs followed proper hygiene and sanitation procedures.

Staying within set limits for ounces, each team was then required to prepare two portions for a gourmet three-course meal, including a soup, salad or appetizer, a protein with accompanying vegetable and starch, and a dessert.

“Three minutes left,” the judge announced, as the student chefs precisely placed a kale and frisee salad and a poached egg on top of frico (Italian cheese crisps) before sprinkling on toasted Louisiana pecans, Parmesan cheese and prosciutto.

“All three plates have to be on the trays,” the judge reminded the students, as they wiped plates and poured caramel sauce over martini glasses filled with velvety desserts.

For onlookers, the atmosphere was somewhat torturous, spending hours in a room filled with savory smells and examining immaculately presented steaming plates of food — without being able to take a bite.

Deniyia Bernard, of Rayne High School, said that it was the time limit that presented the biggest challenge, even with having practiced the pan-fried Oysters Rockefeller, Voodoo pork tenderloin, and king cake bon bons “hundreds of times.” As she watched other schools compete, Bernard said she was nervous but felt her team did well. She said she was anxious to get to the next day’s critiques and final results.

The team to beat Tuesday was Hammond High Magnet School, the winners of the state competition for the past five years.

The Hammond High students worked quickly and quietly, preparing a first course of pumpkin seed and curry crusted Anna Marie Gulf Shrimp with Mardi Gras slaw and a pepper bacon and Creole cane sauce with jumbo lump Louisiana crab.

Watched by their classmates and parents taking video on cellphones, they prepared a cornmeal-dusted braised pork “osso bucco” with bacon jam, goat cheese grits and field greens.

Once finished, one tray of food went to the professional food photographer, while the other went behind a black curtain for tasting.

Peter Sclafani, Hammond High’s mentor and executive chef and owner of Ruffino’s in Baton Rouge, said that he was most impressed by the students’ ability to produce their meals in only an hour, with no electricity, and using only two butane stoves to cook.

“I can’t tell you how hard these kids work,” Scalfani said.

On Wednesday, the schools were to compete in the management competition, during which students presented detailed restaurant proposals to expert judges, followed by a question-and-answer period during which they had to explain how they would manage day-to-day challenges and crisis, from a cook calling in sick to a hepatitis breakout.

Wendy Waren, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said that the yearlong ProStart classes teach students valuable organization, teamwork and communication skills in addition to the culinary and business lessons.

Partnering with local restaurants, the students also participate in internships and can earn college credit as well as their food safety certifications.

The increasing popularity of television cooking shows like “Top Chef” has elevated interest in the ProStart program, Waren said, and gives aspiring chefs a better understanding of both the challenges and rewards of the industry.

Waren said part of the intent of the program is to expose students to the “plethora of jobs” in the industry that go beyond the kitchen.

And while the students graduate with valuable experience and skills, Waren said the program also seeks to meet the needs of the restaurant industry. Waren said that the restaurant industry in Louisiana is expected to add 17,400 jobs by the year 2022.

As they build teams for the competition, students learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their classmates, Waren said.

While there were seven New Orleans schools with ProStart programs prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were not any schools representing the culinary mecca on Tuesday. Waren said they are working to rebuild the program in the city, starting with John McDonogh High School and McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School.

In Jefferson Parish, Grace King High School was the only participating school, though just last week Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School celebrated the grand opening of its own ProStart commercial kitchen.

St. Tammany Parish had teams from five schools at the competition.

The Grace King team’s menu featured an appetizer of Louisiana lump crab meat and mango steeped in a citrus vinaigrette wrapped in English cucumber and topped with blood orange. For dessert, the students presented a banana pecan pan-carmelized bread pudding topped with a Steen’s syrup rum and Chantilly cream.

Grace King ProStart instructor Jeryl Fischtziur said that he had been teaching the two-year course for the past nine years, part of a 24-year career at the school also teaching business classes, coaching basketball and acting as athletic director.

Fischtzuir said that the program has grown every year, with the largest class this year of 68 students. He also noted that his school reigned as state champions in 2005 and 2007 — a title that advances the team to the national competition. He said his students also cook for a variety of community events, including preparing healthy food twice a week for J.D. Meisler Middle School through a partnership with Ochsner Health System.

Angel Parilla, a senior at East St. John High School, said that his family moved to LaPlace in August from St. Croix after a factory closure prompted his parents to seek new jobs.

Parilla said he hadn’t ever had the chance to take cooking classes and jumped on the opportunity at his new school. He said he always had a passion for cooking, and began preparing meals for his family when he was 10 years old.

With the new skills learned in the ProStart classes, Parilla said, he recently cooked his parents a “five star” anniversary dinner. He said he was getting more accustomed to Louisiana flavors but always like to add his own island twists to dishes.

“When I cook, I’m putting myself on the plate,” he said.