The next time preparing dinner and getting it all done at the same time seems like a challenge, imagine if you had to make a three-course gourmet meal in an hour without any running water or electricity and using only two butane burners. And that when you’d finished, a team of judges would evaluate your efforts on criteria including taste, knife skills, safety, sanitation and teamwork. Daunting, right? But that’s the task that was set forth in front of 26 teams of culinary students representing career technical education programs who travelled from all over the state to face off at the recent 2016 ProStart Invitational competition held at Schenectady County Community College on February 26 and 27.
The winning team was from Ulster BOCES. High school seniors Dante Fauci and Karina Rendon from Highland High School, Gianna Ogno from Wallkill High School and Wayne Rockwell from Onteora High School along with high school junior Maya Gray from Saugerties came out on top against 115 competitors, winning not only bragging rights in the prestigious industry-supported competition but multiple scholarship offers from top culinary institutions and a place in the national competition to be held in Dallas, Texas over the weekend of April 29 through May 1. There the team will face off against the champions from every other state as well as some teams from military bases in the Territory of Guam and Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe and the Pacific.
The students from Ulster BOCES will prepare the same meal for the national competition that got them there: a salad of arugula, goat cheese and blueberries topped with honey-roasted almonds, dressed with a citrus vinaigrette; an entrée of chicken roulade stuffed with sundried tomatoes, baby spinach and feta cheese served with a Kalamata olive pan sauce, accompanied by sautéed fresh asparagus and carrots finished with tarragon and a medley of Peruvian purple and Yukon Gold potatoes tossed in chive butter; and a chocolate velvet cake for dessert, filled with raspberry cream cheese and covered in Belgian chocolate ganache, served on a bed of crème anglaise.
The rules for the national competition call for the same requirements as in the statewide contest, with all the elements of the meal finished simultaneously within that same one-hour time frame. “It’s quite a juggling act with only two burners, to do the cake and the veggies, and the starch, as well as the English cream and chocolate ganache all at once,” says Ulster BOCES culinary arts instructor Victor Arnao. “But everything has to go to the judges at the same time.”
Of the 90 students enrolled in the culinary program at Ulster BOCES, the five competitors were chosen based on their test scores and interest in the program. “And, we had a cook-off,” Arnao adds.
The disciplined students enrolled in the two-year, Monday-through-Friday culinary arts career program all earn their diplomas attending their home high schools for half a day with the other half of their studies done at Ulster BOCES, where the credits earned can be translated into college credit when they go on to that stage. “There are more than 60 universities that will give as many as 13 credits for those who come in with ProStart certification,” says Arnao, “and it basically guarantees some scholarship money.” The students earn ProStart® certification in year one and ServSafe® certification in year two. In addition, students earn their food handler certificate the first year and a food service manager certificate the second, credentials that jumpstart both future education and career.
The four graduating students on the competitive culinary team have all been accepted already at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The CIA was just one of the institutions that offered scholarship money to the team for winning the ProStart Invitational. Additional offers came from Johnson and Wales University, the New England Culinary Institute, SUNY at Delhi and Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. For Maya Gray, the only junior on the team, her scholarship funds will be placed on hold until she graduates next year and decides where she wants to go.
In all, each student received approximately $30,000 in scholarship offers and the team received $5,000 for travel expenses to attend the national competition. The students raised the rest of the money needed to travel to Dallas from donors and sponsors, says Arnao. Should they win top honors in Texas, the win will bring even more scholarship awards.
This is the first time Ulster BOCES has had a culinary team win the statewide competition, although in 2007 a team of students from the school won the “sister” competition to this one, in restaurant management.
Looking forward to the national competition, Dante Fauci from Highland High School says he thinks their strategy will be much the same as it was for the statewide contest, just “perfecting it and tightening everything up.” The judges gave them feedback on areas to work on, which included time management and plating techniques. Fauci says he’d like to open his own farm-to-table restaurant some day; Italy would be ideal, but if not, “somewhere warm,” he adds. In addition to his culinary studies, he works part-time at the Beech Tree Grill in Poughkeepsie as a line cook. And while Fauci says he doesn’t have a favorite dish to prepare, he does enjoy things that involve grilling and braising. Farm-to-table dining appeals to him because “you know what you’re putting into your food, you know what you’re eating and you’re supporting local farms.”
Fellow Highland student Karina Rendon works part-time at The Pastry Garden in Poughkeepsie, reflecting her love of baking and future plans to open her own bakery and catering business. She says the team is looking forward to the upcoming national competition but is not intimidated by it. “We all have the same mindset; they won their state [competition], too.” When asked why she thinks her team won the statewide competition, she says it probably came down to the time and effort they put into it. “We worked after school and we had the passion for doing it.” Her favorite thing to bake? Cake.
Gianna Ogno of Wallkill High School sees herself headed toward opening her own pastry shop, too, after graduation from the CIA, and Maya Gray from Saugerties High School is also a baking enthusiast who plans to continue in the Ulster BOCES program next year as a senior. Wayne Rockwell of Onteora, who says he enjoys preparing barbecue, thinks he might look into getting hired on a cruise ship or owning his own restaurant post-CIA.
Their professor says he’ll miss the graduating students next year; his pride in them is understated but obvious. “The students worked hard in preparation for the competition, practicing after school until 6 p.m. almost every day,” Arnao says. “They really wanted it. They won because their heart was in it.”