JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
The timer started ticking, and suddenly the Durango High School classroom was transformed into a teenage version of “Iron Chef America.”
Dressed in white chef’s coats, the four members of the high school’s ProStart culinary team darted between a makeshift sink, trays of ingredients and two tables filled with Bunsen burners, cutting boards and cooking utensils.
Slowly, their state-winning menu of steak tartare, lamb chops with handmade sage fettuccine and chocolate orange ricotta fritters began to take shape. The clock ticked and the students’ activity multiplied. Pistachios crunched, melting sugar bubbled and lamb chops sizzled on the hot pan. The scent of orange zest, mixed with those of parsley, wine and butter.
Since taking first place at the state ProStart competition last month, the team is practicing furiously to prepare for nationals April 27 through 29 in Baltimore. Durango High School will be the only team from Colorado at the competition.
The students created their menu around a French and Italian theme while trying to highlight locally produced foods such as lamb from New Mexico-based Shepherd’s Lamb, Steamworks Brewing Co. beer and beef from James Ranch.
The group has been practicing multiple times a week for most of this year. Besides learning how to cook the three-course meal, the students had to price all of their ingredients down to a teaspoon of sugar. At the national competition, they also will be tested on their ability to butcher a chicken and to perform different chopping styles on vegetables.
In Baltimore, the four-person team of seniors will have 20 minutes of preparation time and one hour of cooking time to prepare two identical versions of their meal.
The process involves fierce attention to detail. Food must come from only its original unopened container, cutting dimensions are specific to an eighth of an inch and plastic templates show how to arrange each food element on the plate.
The standard of perfection is nerve wracking, but it’s also what makes the act of cooking rewarding, said Walker Rodman, a red-headed senior whose most important charge is cooking the lamb chops during competition.
“I like how we take basic ingredients and turn them into something great,” said Rodman, who works part time as a pantry chef at the Ore House Restaurant. “It’s fun being able to put a bunch of effort into one little dish.”
In addition to their adviser, Susie Francis, three local chefs mentor the team and give them technical advice and overall guidance.
“We take their ideas and give them a little more cohesion,” said Rustin Newton, owner and executive chef at Mutu’s Italian Kitchen. He hovered near the students as they practiced, helping tweak their tools and giving advice about cooking techniques.
The young chefs are looking toward nationals with a mix of nervousness and excitement, said Chantel Campbell, whose specialty is the handmade fettucini.
The competition will be their chance to “lay it all out there on the table,” she said.