Photo courtesy of Susie Francis
Photo courtesy of Susie Francis
The four members of Durango High School’s ProStart team won top honors at the 13th annual ProStart Invitational Sysco Hospitality Cup competition held last week at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
ProStart is a national career-building program for high school students that pairs culinary educators with restaurant industry professionals to teach real-world skills. This year’s competition was a match between 19 Colorado high school teams.
Durango’s team of DHS seniors Chantel Campbell, Walker Rodman, Dannah Casto and Dorrian Casto now will prepare for the national competition to be held April 27-29 in Baltimore.
It’s the second time in three years that young culinarians from Durango, under the direction of coach Susie Francis, have wowed judges with a 60-minute food preparation performance to take a first-place win.
“I believe what set the team apart this year is their ability to work seamlessly together,” Francis said.
Durango chefs Rustin Newton of Mutu’s Italian Kitchen, Ryan Lowe and Trevor LaBonte of the Ore House and Sean Devereaux of Guido’s Favorite Foods advised the group on a three-course, Italian-themed menu that showcased top-quality, organic, grass-fed lamb from northern New Mexico.
Campbell convinced her peers that lamb was a great protein around which to create a winning menu.
“Lamb is an elegant dish. It goes well with an Italian theme,” said Campbell, who raised the 4-H grand champion market lamb at the 2011 La Plata County Fair.
“We wanted to do Italian and to execute it well... We added a twist of modern,” she said, describing how the team plated the entrée with sauteed Brussels sprouts, carrots and sauced sage fettuccini. “We took the classic dish (pan-seared lamb chops) and made it more eye- appealing with lots of height. The idea was to keep the plate simple and clean but pull the eye in.”
Campbell was in charge of prepping the vegetables and creating the fresh, handmade sage pasta. She said each member of the team had clearly defined tasks that were rehearsed until they had perfected their team performance.
“Once we settled on the menu, we must have practiced it more than 15 times,” she said.
The group often stayed after school for hours cooking together, tasting, adjusting and refining each other’s recipes. Twin sisters Dannah Casto and Dorrian Casto were in charge of the dessert and the appetizer.
Dannah adapted a recipe from the Silver Spoon cookbook to create a chocolate, orange and ricotta fritter featuring mascarpone cheese and crushed ladyfingers.
“All of us tasted and then tweaked it,” she said, describing how the group decided the deep-fried confection needed less orange zest and more orange liqueur.
A dark-chocolate sauce replaced the original coffee crème anglaise. Pistachio brittle, whipped cream and a blood-orange salad rounded out the complex balance of flavors and color.
Dorrian Casto was charged with grinding the filet of beef and seasoning the tartare appetizer, which was topped with a quail egg yolk and served with potato gaufrettes, a savory mustard sauce and wild arugula salad.
She sauteed the vegetables and made the sage-seasoned cream sauce for the homemade pasta. While each member had specific tasks, they focused on working cooperatively and helping each other, Dorrian Casto said.
“I think we won because we were really determined and we’re all good at communicating with each other,” Dorrian Casto said. “We’re friends, we help each other and we have fun.”
Walker Rodman used his knife skills to french the rack of lamb chops before pan searing and dressing the chops with a mint, parsley vinaigrette and shallot with Chianti reduction.
“We try to pack in as much skill and difficulty into the one hour as possible, hoping to increase our points,” Francis said.
The teams had 15 minutes to arrange their mis en place. The meal had to be cooked on two butane burners, plated and presented to judges within 60 minutes. No electrical or battery operated, time or labor-saving devices were permitted, Francis said.
“Judges are watching for skill level, proper cooking methods, knife cuts and overall difficulty,” Francis said.
Biff McCabe, event judge and national culinary specialist at the Art Institutes of Colorado, said the Durango team was impressive.
“This was an amazing team,” he said. “It was a delight to watch them on the floor.”
McCabe emphasized that judges award points on more than just taste and presentation of food. Knife skills, distribution of labor, organization, sanitation practices and teamwork are critical.
“Durango High School has a really cohesive team and it showed,” he said.
McCabe expects Colorado’s winning team to be impressive when they compete against the top 40 to 42 teams in the country.
“They have as good a chance, if not a better chance than most, when they go to nationals.”