SANDY — Fourteen teams composed of teen chefs faced off in the culinary section of the annual Utah ProStart State Championship in Sandy on Tuesday. Run by the Utah Restaurant Association (URA), the competition also hosted industry-leading chefs, food tasters and restaurateurs.
“It’s kind of cool to be able to be a high school student and then cook some food and then have really prestigious chefs critique it and give their advice. That’s what I take out of this competition,” said Isabela Grinkaiw, who represented Clearfield High School in the contest.
That “some food” she mentioned was pretty advanced. It included an uova da raviolo (egg yolk ravioli) with shiitake mushroom filling, fried shrimp and a carrot daikon salad, as well as a flank steak roulade topped with mashed yams and sauteed long beans, covered in a beef tamarind sauce. For dessert, Grinkaiw's team prepared a toasted coconut cake with decorative sugar tulle, coconut lime buttercream and mangoes.
This ProStart competition, hosted at Mountain America Expo Center, was Grinkaiw's fourth competition counting region and state. For Grinkaiw, a large part the ProStart program, which lasts two years, was centered on meeting the industry professionals who commit their time to teach aspiring students the ins and outs of the kitchen.
Grinkaiw previously won “TeenChef Pro,” a televised competition where teen chefs cook alongside professionals — a la “Chopped” format. With her victory came a scholarship to the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
Melva Sine, the president and CEO of URA, said the ProStart program is about making connections — a sort of food-focused job fair for the competitively spirited.
“If you give kids a direction, they’ll latch onto it and really take hold,” Sine said. “They can see that there’s opportunity in the restaurant industry and they’re eager to get out and be a part of that.”
Sine estimates that roughly 1,400 students are enrolled in the program statewide, and of those bunch, 40 to 50 percent are already working in the industry — in which case, the program and its certifications go toward proving competence and allowing for possible raises.
“This program is a school-to-career program, so basically school-to-work,” Sine said. “Our goal is to have these young people get out into the workforce and be a part of the industry. However, we do give away thousands and thousands of dollars in scholarships if they want to continue and go on to a secondary education.”
According to Sine, the program started with only two high schools in 1995. Now more than 60 high schools attend, representing most of the state.
Sine added that the students enjoy interacting with the chefs and program mentors. These mentors not only teach them valuable skills, but can offer them a job at any time.
“We're hoping many of these young people will not just enter the industry and be part of the workforce, but will be a part of the innovation that creates new restaurants,” Sine added.
Among other factors, the student contestants were graded on food flavor, teamwork, sanitation, mise en place and even menu formatting. Each team was allotted one hour and, when finished, had their courses taken to the judges for scoring.
Catherine Burns from Gastronomy Inc., the parent company of Salt Lake restaurants Market Street Grill and New Yorker, has been a judge for the ProStart program for almost 13 years. Compared with her first year as a tasting judge, Burns said the quality of the food has substantially improved.
She attributes the development to dedicated and enthusiastic teachers as well as improved training.
“We're trying to instill in the students a love for this industry and an exposure to this industry and (the idea) that this can be a very viable career,” Burns said.
Burns added that she hopes students will work in the restaurant business before committing to an expensive university — be paid to learn rather than paying to learn.1 comment on this story
“A lot of them are all fired up about going to culinary school and we always say, ‘No, you should work in a restaurant for a couple of years, and you should really decide you like working the hours, you like being on your feet, you like the heat, and you like all the chaos that goes on in the back of a restaurant.’ You have to really love that and love what you're doing. You can't just be somebody who wakes up and goes, ‘Oh, I love to cook,’ because that’s not what working in a restaurant necessarily implies.”
Even Grinkaiw, who is heading to Denver for more culinary schooling, is happy for the regular job she landed and has gained experience from.
“I think it's awesome,” she said, speaking of ProStart. “I think it helps get kids that are into (cooking) to get their foot through the door and get started.”
ProStart, she said, helped her get her current job at Boston's Restaurant and Sports Bar in Layton.
“Which is just a line cook,” she admitted, “but still a cook.”