YouthEntity culinary team preps for nationals
“Three minutes!” warns chef instructor Matt Maier as his YouthEntity culinary team goes through final preparation for their cooking drill, during which they have one hour to cook and plate a three-course meal.
Tucked into a 10-foot-by-10-foot space equipped with two portable gas burners, the four-student team works with precision to make sure all of the pots, pans, utensils and ingredients are in the right spot.
“It’s important that we practice just like it will be at competition,” Maier, of Aspen Private Chef.Com, said of the upcoming ProStart National Invitational to be held at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Dallas April 28 through May 1.
“You have an allotted amount of time to complete everything, including setup, cooking time and cleanup,” he explained.
The menu for the practice round earlier this week was the same as it was for the recent state competition at Johnson & Wales University in Denver where the YouthEntity team took first place. It’s also the one they will take with them to the national event:
• Sautéed sweetbreads with foraged mushrooms, spring peas, heirloom potato chips and lemon chive emulsion;
• Braised veal cheeks with house-made gnocchi, swiss chard and root vegetable crisps;
• A praline mousse bombe in a dark chocolate cage, with a duet of raspberry and mango coulis, vanilla bean panna cotta and pistachio caramel.
Ready … “begin cooking.”
Team members Leah Allen, a senior at Roaring Fork High School, and Lily Janssen, a junior at Bridges High School in Carbondale, were part of the team that went to nationals last year. They’re hoping to improve upon their 24th-place showing out of 48 teams in that competition.
YouthEntity students have competed on the national level three out of the last four years.
“I’m pretty nervous, but I think we can do a lot better,” said Janssen, who was nominated to the YouthEntity culinary program by a former student. “It’s exciting, and I’m honored to be going again.”
YouthEntity is an award-winning nonprofit organization based at the Bridges Center in Carbondale that provides real-world learning experiences and helps students prepare for potential careers through a variety of programs outside the regular school setting.
Janssen is leaning toward a career in the culinary trades, possibly as a caterer or private chef.
“There are lots of opportunities for that in Aspen,” she said. “I also really like the friendships I’ve made. It’s a great experience, and it’s tons of fun.”
Allen started out in YouthEntity’s baking and pastry program, and has blossomed as a member of the culinary arts team over the past two years.
“All too often teenagers and their dreams are dismissed,” she said. “Here they are heard.”
Allen said programs like ProStart are important to the community, “not because of what they teach, or what competitions we win, but because of the culture they create … we’re part of a family.”
Maier, who coaches the team along with YouthEntity founder and Executive Director Kirsten Petre McDaniel, agrees.
“YouthEntity isn’t just about financial knowledge, pastry arts, culinary arts, or any of our programs, really,” he said “It’s about personal growth.
“Students are exposed to essential skills for success such as working in a team dynamic, deadlines, pressure and how to learn and grow from mistakes,” he said.
Those are skills that the students can apply in any profession, not just in the restaurant and hospitality industry, Maier said.
“I’ve found it helps me work toward any type of goal I want to prepare for,” said team member Justice Wofford, a senior at Roaring Fork High School.
“We’re always experimenting with different things, and we can always learn more,” she said. “And I really like watching the other teams at the competitions, and to see how they deal with things differently.”
The youngest member of the cooking team this year is Basalt High School sophomore Mauricio Sosa. His school counselor suggested he give it a try.
“Cooking is a big part of my family,” said Sosa, whose father is a chef. “We’ve always cooked together as a family.”
It also helped take his mind off of some struggles at school, he confided, and gave him an outlet for one of his passions. Sosa said he is looking forward to nationals, and learning some new techniques by watching the other teams.
Maier said the teams that make it to nationals run the gamut, from after-school programs similar to YouthEntity’s to regular school-based programs, plus vocational schools and even highly regimented military school teams.
“But now that we’ve been there before, I think we can finish in the top 15, maybe top 10,” he said. “It’s just a great learning and social experience, too, and there’s time for the kids to interact and listen to a variety of guest speakers.”
Todd Rymer, director of Colorado Mountain College’s culinary education program in Edwards, gave a cooking demonstration for the YouthEntity students before one of their practice sessions this week.
“This program is very unique, and very beneficial,” Rymer said of the local culinary program. “Because it’s after school, it’s on them to be here, so there’s more of a commitment.
“Cooking is a valuable life skill, too,” he said. “I’m constantly amazed how many adults have no idea how to cook.”
In addition to YouthEntity’s culinary team, its restaurant management team made up of Hunter Apostolik and Leslie Padilla of Glenwood Springs High and Maddie Feder and Alanna Martinez from Roaring Fork took third place at state for their restaurant concept idea.
Feder was on hand to support her fellow students on the culinary teams as they prepare to head off to nationals later this month.
“I just thought it would be a good class to take, I didn’t realize you could do competitions,” Feder said of her introduction to the program two years ago. “It’s been a really good experience for me, and I think it will help me in whatever I do.”
Over 130,000 students participate in ProStart nationally, but just 400 get to represent their state in the national culinary arts or management competitions, explained Petre McDaniel.
ProStart, which is run by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, is a national high school hospitality program that incorporates business management, entrepreneurship and culinary arts. Petre McDaniel brought the program to the Roaring Fork School District through YouthEntity, and has served as the business coach since. The program is funded locally entirely by donations.
Others providing mentoring for the team include Eric Scharfenberger of Chili’s, Jonathan Fillman of The Little Nell, Andreas Fischbacher of Allegria, Gerry McDaniel of McD Restaurant Group, and Chris Norvell of Epicurious Catering.