Northern Nevada high school chefs cook up recipe for success
December 18, 2007
Pan-seared saffron soup, seasoned lamb on white rice with vegetable tempura and raspberry and lemon curd tuile cookies.
No this isn’t the prefix menu at Alize, Le Cirque or Postrio in Las Vegas.
This is Carson High.
Tuesday afternoon, more than 200 Northern Nevada high school students, enrolled in their respective schools’ culinary programs, squared off in teams to be the cleanest, safest and most creative top prep chefs in the region.
The day’s winners of the CHS-hosted Northern Nevada ProStart Competition will go on to compete against Clark County students for tops in the state in February.
ProStart competitions are presented by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. Students can square off in culinary or management skills contests. Tuesday’s regional meet featured area high schools including North Valleys, Douglas and Incline.
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In Nevada, a state with the economy’s lifeblood fueled by the hospitality industry, winning bragging rights for culinary supremacy is more precious than a sharp set of knives, said Carson’s Hospitality and Management Program Academy director Penny Reynolds.
“I’ll tell you this – these (students) mean business,” she said. “They’re sophisticated, they know what they’re doing and they get results.”
Perhaps more than any vocational program the school offers, Carson’s 170 students enrolled in the academy often go on to a career in cuisine, or at least in the hospitality industry.
Reynolds asserted 90 percent of her students move on to make their love of food a vocation.
“I think what the students see is something that’s practical, something that translates into a career, but unfortunately – not here,” she said.
But more on that later.
By 2:30 p.m., a dozen competing CHS teams clad in hairnets and white double-breasted chef’s coats (most comprised of four members, but some duos and some quintets) diced, sautéed, marinated and seared their way into a mid-competition fervor.
Each team was outfitted the same – two burners and a set of knives – and, of course, the ingredients necessary to create a gourmand’s dream for appetizer, main course and dessert.
Of course, there also were setbacks.
“Um, we forgot the powdered sugar,” said Mackenzie Groth, 17, a senior, who was helping her chef partners of Carson High’s Team 4 “improvise” in the preparation of their Bananas Napoleon dessert.
“I guess that’s what you learn to do in a real kitchen.”
Indeed, the teamwork, improvisation and skills in preparing food on the fly were tantamount to receiving a high score, judge Ralph Marrone said.
The Carson resident and ex-restaurateur noted there was one skill he looked for above all others.
“Safety,” he said. “That’s the foundation for any kitchen. If the food’s great, then great – but you’ve got to have all your fingers in order to prepare it.”
Judges like Marrone, also clad in chef’s coats, wove through the student teams, looking for everything from vegetable selection to resale value.
“We’re hoping (whomever) they pick has that little something extra,” Reynolds said. “Really, though – this is a great program. These kids are dedicated.”
As are the program’s volunteers.
To keep the culinary academy afloat at Carson High, year-round fundraisers and “grant money, grant money, grant money” are constantly needed Reynolds said.
Carson High senior James Pelz, 17, was stirring a pesto sauce for his team’s chicken parmesan entree. He said he hoped his team, all seniors, would get a chance to take their talents to the state meet.
Even if they didn’t take top honors Tuesday, he said a career in the culinary arts looks promising.
“I think all of us here have found a skill,” he said. “You can go a long way in this career.”
If Reynolds were to have one qualm with the success of the program, it’s that more of her students don’t wind up cooking or managing locally.
“They have to go all over – Southern Nevada, other parts of the country,” she said. “There’s really not much here in Carson.”
But, turning out dozens of students each year to the industry will eventually come back to help the area, she said.
“Maybe it’s only a matter of time,” she said. “I mean, look around you at all the wonderful things they’ve got cooking.”
• Contact reporter Andrew Pridgen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.