Noor Jerath is a junior and this is her third year being part of the Globe. She joined because her English teacher suggested she join due to her love of writing. She is looking...
Stirring Up Competition
Senior Managing Editor Noor Jerath reports on the success of Clayton High School's culinary team's preparation for the National ProStart Invitational.
December 29, 2019
You’re walking down the hallway and all of a sudden the smell hits you. The intoxicating fragrance of butter and vanilla perfectly melded together in the form of a warm sugar cookie. The day takes its course, but you can’t focus. All you can think about is the delicious smell. In class, you sidle up to the lucky student taking culinary, smugly holding their coveted white paper napkin, and beg for a tiny morsel of the round piece of heaven.
Chances are that, as a student at CHS, you’ve experienced this scenario at some point. Within the CTE hallway are four walls decorated with cooking-related decals that encase a room unlike any other.
Although many students are familiar with the scents wafting down the hall and the fun classroom design, not as many know about what else is housed in the room: the CHS culinary team. Not your typical Clayton team, the ProStart Hounds compete against other Missouri schools in an annual qualifier for the National ProStart Invitational.
The curriculum followed by the class is part of the nationwide program ProStart, which aims to prepare high school students for careers in the foodservice industry. With two levels, the course allows students to first develop basic cooking and safety techniques, before diving deeper into marketing and advertising within the industry, as well as its history.
All of the skills that students acquire through the year are put to the test in February during the state qualifier in Springfield, Missouri.
Beginning in December, the five students chosen for the team and Dr. Lauren Compton, the ProStart Hounds Culinary and Management Competition Teams advisor, begin preparations for the tough competition that requires innovative thinking and creative problem solving.
Almost daily in the months leading up, the team meets to first create and then perfect a three-course menu. In past years, the team has experimented with Southern, Italian, Asian Fusion and Greek-influenced cooking.
While meticulously planning the perfectly scripted interactions that will play out in February, the students learn more than just how to navigate a kitchen.
“Obviously they walk away with some culinary skills,” said Compton. “They get to work with an industry mentor throughout the season who helps them take their original ideas for their menu and elevate them to the level that we need for competition. But I think that the biggest thing that the kids walk away with is understanding of true teamwork and collaboration.”
In the busy months spent preparing, the students are faced with challenges that teach them valuable skills that are also applicable outside the whimsical walls of the culinary room.
“[The students] learn things that are going to help them not just in the restaurant and hospitality industry, but in general as a student and as an adult. Management skills, communication skills, leadership skills–all of that just comes to play within the classroom and behind the stovetop,” Compton said.
Additionally, the team works with a former-chef, Ed Russo, who mentors the team members individually and as a whole. With his guidance, they scour the internet and build a competitive menu around a central theme; this year, fruit.
After a busy few weeks spent rehearsing the perfectly-timed menu that will unfold at the competition, the team loads up the car and heads over to Springfield.
According to the National ProStart Invitational’s website, “The culinary competition highlights each team’s creative abilities through the preparation of a three-course meal in 60 minutes, using only two butane burners, and without access to running water or electricity.”
Working on two tables in 10 square feet of space under these tricky conditions, the team’s hard work pays off. Judges score teams on safety, sanitation, teamwork, level of difficulty and menu presentation, in addition to the actual taste of the dishes.
“Overall, it’s just a fun experience for the kids, whether or not they want to go into this field. They just enjoy cooking, and this is something that they’ve found to enjoy here at Clayton,” said Compton.
For those who do aspire to work in the industry, the top three teams at the state level are awarded scholarship money toward different culinary and restaurant hospitality programs around the country, and the top team advances to the national competition in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of how students foresee their futures, the intense-yet-fun nature of the culinary team appeals to a broad range of students.
“I’ve had people who have gone on to work in the industry, and I’ve also had students that go on and study, you know, psychology,” Compton said. “But this [team] was just kind of where they found their place.”