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Teen chefs compete in state cooking competition; Springville, Westlake take top honors

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SANDY — The competition kitchen became like a rotisserie oven as the chefs inside ran in circles trying to beat the clock and cook the best three-course meal.

Ten high schools selected teams of students to compete in the Utah Restaurant Association's annual state teenage cooking competition at the South Towne Expo Center on March 17. The competition is the culmination of a nationwide, two-year high school program called ProStart.

The competition consisted of both a culinary and a management competition, and they included the winners of regional competitions in February among 34 high schools. Competing schools in the culinary competition included Cedar City, Springville, Provo, Westlake, Tooele, West, Murray, Clearfield, Bonneville, and Northridge high schools, and teams from Bonneville, Northridge, Herriman, Riverton, Taylorsville, Cedar City, Westlake, Provo, West and Copper Hills high schools were in the management competition.

The team from Springville High School won the culinary competition, and the Westlake High School team won the management competition. Both teams will be advancing to the national championship in Anaheim, California, April 18-20.

The culinary competition gave each team one hour to complete an appetizer, entree and dessert. The teams were not allowed to use any electronic equipment and were given only two butane burners to cook food.

Floor judges evaluated each team based on knife skills, safety, plating and food storage, while tasting judges awarded points anonymously for each appetizer, entree and dessert based on taste and presentation.

"We've been practicing hundreds of times in between regionals and now," said Nichole Bishop from Westlake High School. "We all had to learn how to not run over each other, but after all our practice it was relatively easy, and we just did it out of muscle memory."

Students at this year's competition prepared such dishes as Beet Goat Cheese Napoleon, Crab Salad and Pan-Seared Bison.

The management competition required students to present a complete business model for their restaurants, including floor plans, menus and pricing. The menus displayed exact proportions for individual ingredients and the corresponding costs of each, such as the single tablespoon of black pepper for West High School's Filet Mignon, costing 8 cents.

"The culinary math is very important," said Melva Sine, URA president and CEO. "If you don't keep your labor costs, food costs and operational costs below 33 percent, you don't make money. What they have to do is learn to keep all those items in mind."

The front- and back-of-the-house competitions reflect skill sets intended to help high school students enter the food industry. Sine said the ProStart program helps students stay engaged in school.

"I have kids come up to me and say, 'I stayed in high school just so I could take this program,’” Sine said. "That's what this program is all about."

Many students were introduced to ProStart by their teachers in food and cooking classes. Faith Boren, a senior from Westlake High School, said she had already planned on entering the food industry and used ProStart to help her achieve her dreams.

"Now I actually want to be a high school foods teacher, so this has been really good for me," Boren said.

Many judges were URA board members and restaurant owners who helped judge past competitions as well. According to several tasting judges, the students improve each year and continually create better dishes for the competition.

"Sometimes in the past, we've had raw products and different challenges with the presentation," said food judge Neil Dickinson, who has contributed to ProStart competitions for more than 10 years. "But now they're starting to learn and understand the profession, and they're getting really good."

Taylor Hintz is a Deseret News features reporter and journalism student at Brigham Young University in Provo. Email: thintz@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @TaylorHintz