The young team didnt finish in the top 5 to qualify for nationals

by: KEVIN SPERL - Prostart competition. ABOVE: Neil Chaney (LEFT) and Megan Allen competed this past weekend at the Prostart High School Culinary Championships.

Minimally equipped with a pair of butane burners and no running water or electricity, members of Crook County High School's culinary class whipped up a gourmet meal of prawns, Northwest halibut and a chocolate naval orange Panna Cotta.

Cora White, Megan Allen, Neil Chaney and Marrisa Luther, with the support of their culinary instructor Macy Hagensee and student adviser Megan Highsmith, competed this past weekend at the Oregon Prostart High School Culinary Championships at the Red Lion Hotel in Portland.

Under the watchful eye of chefs from The Art Institute of Portland, Cascade Culinary Institute, Bon Appetit Management Company and others, the "Cooking Cowboys," and girls, joined 95 students from 19 Oregon high schools, competing for $180,000 in scholarship money, as well as a slot in the national championship.

"This was the team's third year in the competition," explained Hagensee, "Two years ago, we finished 14th out of 26 teams, and last year we placed seventh out of 22."

Highsmith competed on both of those teams and, since the competition does not allow students to compete more than twice, was sharing her experience with this year's team, which Hagensee calls "my best four students."

"This year's team is all going for the first time," added Hangensee, "So they certainly benefited from her [Highsmith's] experience."

To gauge the competition, the team made note of last year's winner, Seaside High, who presented an appetizer of double chicken consommé, an entreé of seared Harris Ranch beef tenderloins with balsamic seared vegetables and whipped potatoes and Hollandaise, and a dessert of “campfire” s’mores.

Chaney, who prepared the entree for this year's team, is a freshman, but has already earned the 2013 title of 4-H Iron Chef last summer.

"We received the ingredient list two weeks before that competition," explained Chaney. "I prepared a grilled teriyaki salmon with pineapple salsa accompanied by asparagus with jelly."

Admitting to being partial to sushi, Chaney has his culinary sights set on Japan.

"We have had a few foreign exchange students from Japan here at school," said Chaney, "and I really like their style of food."

Not only was the team limited to two burners, they were under the gun to produce a complete dinner within strict time constraints.

Their schedule called for them to arrive at 8 a.m. They then had 30 minutes to check in their food and equipment, 15 minutes to demonstrate knife skills, 20 minutes to set up their cooking station and 60 minutes to prepare the three course meal. Within that hour, they were required to prepare two plates each of the appetizer, entree and desert.

Highsmith knows all too well the pressure this year's team faced.

"My first year I was shaking," she admitted, "and my advice to them was too communicate well, and often," citing a situation where a team member might be carrying something hot behind another, unsuspecting, team member.

According to White, the menu was based on the team's own experience and a desire to incorporate as much Northwest native food as possible.

"Creating this menu was the result of a lot of trial and error," said White, "and a lot of time, and tweaking."

White added that the team had practiced the menu at least five times, with the final session having taken place a few days before the competition.

The team looked to Luther to tackle the most difficult component of the meal, the dessert.

"I have always liked making deserts and baking," she said. "It's fun to do artistic things with the food," adding that Panna Cottas and anything made with chocolate are her favorites.

Allen, responsible for the appetizer, agreed with Highsmith that communication was key.

"Everybody needed to know what the other team members were doing," she said.

White was the roving chef, helping anywhere and anyway she was needed, assisting in making Squash Ragout, Mango Mojo, Garlic Aoli and other items.

Although this event was their first, the team members are not strangers to competitions. White, Allen and Luther had taken part in previous events at Central Oregon Community College. And, of course, Chaney already holds a few titles of his own.

"I like cooking and the pressure of food competitions," admitted White.

Highsmith's final words of wisdom for handling that pressure?

"It's fun, it's difficult and it's different," she said, "But, we go in expecting the worst to happen."

Unfortunately, the team did not place in the top five, necessary to move on to the National ProStart Invitational in Minneapolis, Minn.

But Luther, for one, was not disappointed, posting to Facebook "Yeah, we didn't win, but being the youngest team there, we did a heck of a job."

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