There was no asparagus in Alaska’s capital city. Not in any of the three main grocery stores on the day that four students from Thunder Mountain High School needed it to practice for an upcoming culinary competition in Anchorage.
The students -- Darin Donohue, Brandon Johanson, Summer Wille and Mark Uddipa -- had gathered at the school on Presidents’ Day, a school holiday, to prepare for a statewide cooking competition, the ProStart Invitational, only five days away. The asparagus, part of their entree, was an essential ingredient.
Patrick Roach, the team coach, had a back-up plan. He opened a refrigerator in his classroom and took out some withered puny 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.
“Put it a brown paper bag?” Johanson said.
No. Roach placed the end of the three spears into a glass with an inch or two of water. Voila.
Roach teaches several culinary classes at TMHS. His cooking classroom resembles a high school chemistry laboratory, but instead of Bunsen burners there are electric ovens, instead of eye washing stations there are hand washing stations, and the white board contains lists of ingredients, not chemical elements.
“This is a close approximation of a real working environment, the positive camaraderie that can be formed,” he said. “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’s approach is positive, and the students seem to enjoy it, 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 said he drops the hammer on towel snapping, the tight winding of a towel that can inflict recipients with welts if they administer the appropriate wrist flick action.
None of this behavior seemed likely on this Monday morning, as the students prepared to get down to work. Wille was looking at photos of a bouquet of bacon roses she’d prepared for her sweetheart; Johanson, a tall kid whose chef shirt fit him like a crop top, was trying to squeeze his hands into a pair of plastic food-service gloves; Uddipa, the team ham, hopped around exercising Roach’s appreciation of humor and sarcasm; and Donohue was discussing his relationship with the julienne style of knife cut.
And in fact, Roach selected the four students for the competition based on their enthusiasm for cooking, work ethic and, he said, their “niceness.”
The nationwide ProStart competition, sponsored by the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer’s Association, has been occurring for over a decade, but the Alaska competition is just beginning to gather 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. 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.
In helping him to prepare the students for the competition, Roach also gave a lot of credit 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 broken down into five sections. There is a knife skills component, where two students demonstrate their proficiency of various styles of cuts while the other two fabricate a chicken -- that is, cut it into eight parts. There’s a mise en place component, which involves the organization and arrangement of cooking ingredients and equipment, and a cleanup component. And there’s the actual preparation and presentation of the food: an appetizer, entrée and a dessert.
With help from Morehead, the team had decided on three dishes for the competition: 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. Each student was in charge of one dish, with the fourth person assisting where necessary.
While the team began assembling their various stations, Roach stressed the importance of communication and focus, especially while the atmosphere may be distracting.
“3-2-1 start,” Roach said, and he twisted a timer to the 60-minute mark.
Johanson started whistling the “Jeopardy” tune, getting to work on the gastrique for the scallops as Uddipa sliced 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,” Uddipa said.
Wille was on dessert detail. She was calm; each word 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 then 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 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, that, once cooled in the ice bath, would resemble noodles. Add the dark chocolate balls and a raspberry coulis and the group had an odd but fun dessert: mock spaghetti with meatballs.
This day’s practice was one of the last the group would complete with the ability to receive feedback 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.
As 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, sadly, 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. This is what my day is like all day long,” Roach said, referring to the air of playfulness.
As the hour time limit approached, the group talked about how they could better 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,” (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 at the competition in Baltimore.
The team carried their spirit of fun with them when they flew to Anchorage for the competition. As they filed into the Lucy Cuddy Hall at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where they had a mandatory meeting with members of the other six teams the day before the contest, they found the other students to be a bit stiff in comparison, Roach said.
“The other teams were very very serious,” he said a week later. “It was a serious competition, and we’re kind of goof 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.
“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.
“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, as per competition rules. 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.
“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 brought a bunch of chickens home one day before the competition so she could practice.
Meanwhile, 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 were 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 repeatedly put the bottom 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 finally 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.”
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 the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.