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Cinnamon was the issue, just when time was of the essence.
Stephanie McGuire had whisked her perfectly grilled lamb chops off the heat. Joshua Walbolt hovered over plates, daubing them with basil purée and coconut milk polenta. A melange of vegetables was next, but Emily Coomer and Tori Newbauer were huddled over the sauté pan, tasting, frowning, tasting, seasoning.
Overhead, an intercom crackled, reminding students that next Tuesday's classes would follow Friday's schedule due to the spring break at Elk River High School.
The girls took another taste. Since winning last month's state culinary competition sponsored by Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation, the team of four students had been nudging their garam masala seasoning in a more cinnamony direction. Their mentor, chef Tom Kavanaugh, had preached the gospel of always tasting. And yet. ...
"Clock's ticking!" Kavanaugh said.
Their last taste earned mutual nods. The vegetables were arranged in a stream over which two chops were crossed. Deep-fried garlic cloves and a rosemary sprig garnished one corner, while a final drizzle of balsamic might just as well have spelled "Done!"
With whole networks now devoted to food, maybe the idea that high school students can talk knowledgeably of mousseline and sabayon isn't surprising. Yet it's impressive when they're still having to study for a math test, read Shakespeare and decide whether to attend the pep rally -- all while training for the nationals April 27-29 in Baltimore.
These four -- three seniors and a junior -- are enrolled in ProStart, a hands-on high school curriculum offered by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The idea is to train students considering a culinary career, as are McGuire, Walbolt and Newbauer. Coomer is mulling a major in psychology -- even though she won the state knife skills contest.
There are 43 Minnesota schools in the program now, involving more than 2,200 students. Elk River is sort of the celebrity chef of the bunch, having represented the state at nationals four times in the six years Minnesota has had a competition.
The upcoming contest also will be a finale for their teacher, Kathy Ellefson. She's been teaching at Elk River since 1973, when such instruction was called Home Ec. She has seen the term shift to Family and Consumer Science, and now leads students in Food Occupations. She'll retire at the end of the school year -- but not without hoopla, if the students have anything to say about the teacher they call Miss Ellie.
"We don't know how we could do this without Miss Ellie," said Newbauer. "It's like we're her children."
"She buys groceries; she stays late," chimed in Coomer.
"She's always giving us scholarship applications," said Walbolt.
"And we have to keep our grades up because she's on it," added McGuire.
Air high-fives will do
"I tell them our goal is to get our name called," said Kavanaugh, who has driven from Kavanaugh's, his family's longtime resort complex on Sylvan Lake in the Brainerd area, to Elk River to mentor the students. He'll make the trip as often as necessary. Kavanaugh was a national judge last year, but stepped down so he could instead train this team; other states' teams grew when professionals took an interest. Some of the Twin Cities' top chefs, including Alex Roberts, Tim McKee and Jamie Malone, have lent their expertise.
The competition is daunt ing: Make two identical appetizers, entreés and desserts, start to finish, in one hour -- on two butane burners. The only "gimme" is that students can bring premade stock.
"You learn to use every heat source available," said Ellefson, unfolding a collapsible oven so it can sit on a burner. "Tori will melt her ganache by resting a bowl on top."
She beams at the students, calling them "hon" and "sweetheart." The last competition is bittersweet. "It's so cool how everyone embraces the process," she said, "We're training future generations."
Newbauer wants to be a pastry chef, and went toe-to-toe with Kavanaugh to make the case for a banana sabayon with chocolate ganache, caramelized pineapple and macadamia toffee. "I was so impressed that she stuck by her dessert idea," said Kavanaugh, who had resisted chocolate.
The students are self-taught -- or TV- and YouTube-taught. "We watch a lot of videos after school," Walbolt said.
"The Food Network is all I watch," McGuire said. "You get so many ideas. We're always texting each other saying: 'Watch what they're doing now.'"
But their work is not all flambé and Bobby Flay. They must calculate real-world menu prices based on food costs and profit margins.
They'll also be judged on knife skills, with two of them randomly chosen to do four of six options: julienne, brunoise, chiffonade, medium dice, mince, tomato concasse. The other two must cut a chicken into eight pieces.
Sanitation is a high priority, which is why Kavanaugh offers only mimed "air high-fives" to the students.
Walbolt, a politely intense young man, made the team last year as a junior. "I cooked a lot as a kid," he said, since his parents were busy, with his mother involved with a Cambodian choir that toured the United States. His father designed the striking elk logo on their chefs' jackets.
Coomer's older sister had been on an earlier team. "I like how it makes everyone work as a team," she said. "You learn to deal with stressful situations."
McGuire began taking food classes as a sophomore, kept at it, "and then me and Tori. ... "
"Tori and I," Newbauer corrected, grinning.
" ... Tori and I were chosen for the team by the others."
Newbauer, a junior, tells her story: "In ninth grade, I was in Miss Ellie's cooking class and I was with all the bad kids and we never got anything done. But I came to her and told her I wanted to be on the team. She kept working with me, and here I am."
Newbauer is obsessing about her dessert. The nut brittle needs to be thinner, and she's not sure where the caramelized pineapple should go on the plate, or if the brittle should be pulverized.
When Kavanaugh, holding a shard of brittle, moved toward the glossy dome of ganache covering her banana mousse, she squeaked in panic.
"I don't want that to get dented," she said, as he carefully anchored the candy in the chocolate. The brittle caught the light, whetting a diner's curiosity about what lay within.
"Now that's a dessert," he said, smiling. "Air high-five."
Newbauer smiled back: "I think we all like making people happy. That's why we cook."