Thunder Mountain High School student Mark Uddipa adds a mustard dill sauce to a plate of poached sockeye salmon during a practice session before his team went to compete in the ProStart Invitational culinary competition in Anchorage late last month.
Thunder Mountain High School student Summer Wille shows off a white chocolate noodle she concocted for a dessert that her team created for the ProStart Invitational culinary competition.
Story last updated at 3/13/2013 - 2:06 pm
There was no asparagus in Alaska's capital city - at least not in any of the three main grocery stores on the day that a four-student Thunder Mountain High School team was preparing for a practice test of completing a three course meal for an upcoming state-wide competition in Anchorage, the ProStart Invitational.
The competition took place on Feb. 23, a Saturday, and the students: Darin Donohue, Brandon Johanson, Summer Wille and Mark Uddipa were meeting on Presidents' Day, a day without regularly scheduled classes, to practice the week before they left.
Patrick Roach, the team coach, opened a refrigerator in his classroom. The room resembled a high school chemistry laboratory, but instead of Bunsen burners there were electric ovens, instead of eye washing stations there were hand-washing stations and the white board contained lists of ingredients, not chemical elements. He took out some withered green stalks, reserves from a prior preparation session.
"Does anyone know how to liven up an asparagus?" Roach asked the team, as they were getting into their starched chef whites and joshing around.
Wille had recently made a bouquet of bacon roses for her sweetheart and had photos on her phone; Johanson is a tall kid and his chef shirt was more like a crop top and Roach speculated over whether his "gorilla hands" would fit into the gloves they had available; Uddipa was the team ham, hopping around and exercising Roach's appreciation of humor and sarcasm; Donohue was discussing his relationship with the julienne style of knife cut.
"Put it a brown paper bag?" Johanson tried to answer Roach's question.
No. Roach placed the end of the three spears into a glass with an inch or two of water.
Roach teaches several culinary classes at TMHS.
"This is a close approximation of a real working environment, the positive camaraderie that can be formed," he said, as Johanson whistled the Jeopardy tune. "I like the craziness. Kids fight each other with spatulas. They have so many classes where they are at their desks, writing, listening, reading; they should have one class where they can go crazy."
Though Roach appears to be a very positive person, and the students seemed to enjoy his class, there are a few things for which he has zero tolerance.
"I can lose my temper," he said. "Knives will do it. There are certain things that can really make me angry, like goofing around with frying oil."
He also drops the hammer on towel snapping, the tight winding of a towel, (of which there are a lot of in a kitchen setting), which can inflict recipients with welts if they administer the appropriate wrist flick action.
Roach said that a lot of credit for the students' preparedness for the competition is owed to David Morehead, of the Breeze Inn, and Jonah Keen, head chef at MiCasa restaurant, who helped develop the menu and provided guidance, volunteering twice a week for three months.
The competition is sponsored by the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association, and the competing students must be enrolled in a high school class that uses a ProStart curriculum, administered by the National Restaurant Educational Foundation. Roach said that Jack Manning, of Juneau's branch of CHARR, was instrumental to providing his students this opportunity.
Though the nationwide competition has been occurring for over a decade, the Alaska competition is just beginning to garner speed. Seven high schools participated in this year's event and just three last year. Besides TMHS the participating teams were from Delta Junction, Kodiak, Valdez, Chugiak and two from Anchorage: Service High School and West High School.
Roach selected the four students for the competition based on their enthusiasm for cooking, work ethic and, he said, their "niceness."
The competition was broken down into five sections. There was a knife skills component, where two students, (chosen by the state judges the day of the competition), would have to demonstrate their proficiency of various styles of cuts. The cuts could be made using ingredients for the dishes in the competition. Simultaneously, the two other students would have to fabricate a chicken, that is, cut it into eight specific parts. The other sections of the competition included a mise en place, (the organization and arrangement of cooking ingredients and equipment), a signal to the judges that the team planned to begin cooking, the 60-miniute cooking time allotted to prepare, plate and present two servings of three dishes, (an appetizer, entrée and a dessert), and a cleanup component.
With help from Morehead, the team had decided on the three dishes: an appetizer of pan-seared scallops with a blood orange gastrique and an herb salad of mint, tarragon and parsley; an entrée of poached sockeye with asparagus, (lively spears, preferably), and mashed potatoes; and a rather unusual and creative dessert.
While the team began assembling their various stations, (each student was in charge of one dish, with the fourth person assisting where necessary), Roach stressed the importance of communication, especially while the atmosphere may be distracting.
"I'm going to start bedazzling the gloves, putting rhinestones on them," he said, referring to the plastic gloves they had to practice consistently wearing and changing often.
"3-2-1 start," Roach said, and he twisted a timer to the 60-minute mark.
Johanson got to work on the gastrique for the scallops as Uddipa addressed slicing potatoes for the entrée course. He contemplated wearing one glove at the competition, as a tribute to Michael Jackson.
"If you mess up, you gotta mess up in style," he said.
Wille was on dessert detail. She was calm; each word she spoke seemed to be subconsciously unhurried. She set out a scale and fetched two types of chocolate, a bittersweet and a Belgium white. She began melting the bittersweet chocolate and creating a ganache, that was cooled and rolled into truffle-sized balls. Wille also melted the white chocolate and added agar agar, a thickener made from seaweed. She assembled an ice bath and put a small, clear plastic tube onto the end of a large syringe. Into the syringe went the white chocolate. The idea was that it would come out of the tube into pliable strips, which once cooled with the water, would resemble noodles. Add the dark chocolate balls and a raspberry coulis and the group had what could be the most creative dessert: mock spaghetti with meatballs.
This day's practice was one of the last the group would complete with the ability to receive contact from Roach; during the actual competition they can only communicate with each other. Roach checked on the ganache.
"They're getting more and more meat-bally, if that's an adjective," he said.
Wille tested her noodle-making contraption. A blast of white chocolate hit Uddipa in the ear. He asked if he could eat it. Roach explained how they'd be graded on their sanitation, and that the five second rule would not be endorsed by the judges. So no, there would be no eating of misplaced squirted chocolate.
"Summer is like a cooking grenade," Roach said. "This is what my day is like all day long," referring to the air of playfulness.
As the hour time limit approached, the group talked about how they would manage their time. They were well rehearsed, but one problem appeared to be that they were completing their dishes too early. They would have to time it so that they were plated and hot just before the timer chimed, as presentation was one of many criteria on which they would be graded. One way they conjured up to fill some time at the end was to perform an a cappella routine and finish with "Jazz Hands," hoping to win the judges over with pizzazz. If that was the one criterion, they might have very well coasted into a national sensation in Baltimore.
The team flew to Anchorage the day before the competition. Roach said just the traveling logistics alone were more difficult than he anticipated. Things that seemed like they wouldn't be monumental tasks became hurdles once they started working on them.
They brought two items he was unsure they could obtain in a timely fashion in Anchorage: fresh sockeye salmon and truffle butter. The airlines made them dump out the ice from the salmon cooler, (it wasn't in packs, but loose, a no-no). Luckily, during the flight, it remained below the required storage temperature, though Roach threw snow into it immediately after touchdown. He had to procure matching non-slip shoes for the group, and Johanson has size 13 feet.
Roach and his group are known to have fun. These obligatory tasks were box-checking thorns. Their lists completed, the group filed into the Lucy Cuddy Hall at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where they had a mandatory meeting that included members of the other six teams.
"The other teams were very, very serious," Roach said, sitting in his classroom the week after the competition, in front of a white board covered with notes about refined versus whole wheat flour. "It was a serious competition, and we're kind of good balls. I told the students I just wanted them to have fun."
It wouldn't have been worth it, he said, if it became about winning. A high ranking should just be icing. He said that the atmosphere at the meeting and day of the competition was quite stiff.
"My students were approaching people, 'Hi, I'm from (Juneau). We're going to cook this, and this,' and no one wanted to talk about their meals," he said. "It was all hush-hush."
On Saturday, as the team waited for their turn to set up, the other teams practiced and worked on competition-related activities; the TMHS team played a board game. But this was part of Roach's approach. He wanted his team to do well, but he wanted the students to enjoy the culinary world enough to keep it in their lives; placing too much importance on a one-hour competition could have deleterious effects.
"I thought they needed to relax, not sit there obsessing," Roach said.
Just after 11 a.m. the TMHS team hit the court. They had already turned in a list of ingredients, itemized and portioned with weights and volumes and prices per volume. It was dizzying to see the packet Roach had on his desk containing these statistics. This was part of the competition. Roach estimated they had more than 70 items on the list. The food had been stored and checked in prior to the competition, sealed and dated or in its original packaging. Two judges alone were assigned to grade this list.
"Once they check in the food, I can't talk to them," Roach said. "No waving, signaling, nothing. They're on their own."
Wille and Donohue were selected by the judges to break down the chickens. That was one sigh of relief for Roach; Wille's father had bought a bunch of chickens home one day before the competition so she could practice.
Johanson and Uddipa displayed a series of four different knife cuts.
"This is all running (consecutively)," Roach said, of the competition stages. "No gaps. Straight from knives to mis en place then competition."
There were two judges for each of the three courses. During the competition they're sequestered away from the action.
"They can't see how (the dishes) are prepared," Roach said. "When you're done you bring your plates to them and they eat and grade it."
Some judges' roles were to do the opposite: meticulously watch every student and his or her actions.
"There's half a dozen judges watching for sanitation, communication and that's where we lost a lot of points," Roach said.
He said it was a little agonizing watching the team but not being able to communicate with them.
They had been using a pre-assembled food mill to make their mashed potatoes, and had dissembled it for travel. He watched as they tried, during their 60 minutes, to assemble it, and continuously the bottom was put on upside down.
"I was going crazy watching," Roach said. "I wanted to tear my hair out. It was an intuitive mistake; it didn't look right to turn it. But they figured it out."
Wille did, she turned it, remained stoic, and moved on with her sweet spaghetti.
The TMHS students didn't lose points on communication; that they clearly had down to a refined art. They lost points for brushing the backs of their hands against their foreheads, and other similar maneuvers.
"There were seven teams but only three hand washing stations," Roach said, "and there's a lot of hand washing to keep up with in code. It's a little difficult."
At one point the nearest hand washing station ran out of water, and in an attempt to comply with the sanitation rules, Wille left and walked to the bathroom. The team ended up finishing ten seconds over the hour. That cost points. But Wille isn't one to protest, she's more into roses made out of bacon.
Other areas the group struggled with involved the food preparation. They had forgotten cocoa powder, the secret to getting the ganache more meat-bally, and the ratio of their salmon portion to mashed potatoes wasn't to the judges' liking. They also hadn't made a habit of tasting their food, and the potatoes were low on salt.
Thunder Mountain High School placed fifth, with a score of 77.9 points out of a possible 105. The top three schools, Chugiak, (87.1 points), Kodiak, (85.6 points), and Valdez, (81.7), all happened to be the three teams that competed last year. Roach doesn't think this was a coincidence. Many of the points the TMHS team lost, Roach said, would be recoverable through experience. As in, he's returning next year.
"They were the only group smiling and having fun," Roach said.
If anything, that's just what he wanted for them.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.