Home Ec Grows Up

Local high-school students cook up fancy-schmancy meals in the name of education.

What's cooking at Bothell High School? Pacific Dungeness crab cakes, pan-fried and served with a Chateau Ste. Michelle blanc de blanc sauce with a hint of dill; spring lamb rack au fruits, rubbed with aromatics and spices; and coffee-chocolate mousse, piped into a white chocolate cup and accompanied by crème chantilly and raspberries. This is not your grandma's home-ec class. Try Iron Chef meets Saved by the Bell. Last month in a linoleum-floored classroom, the Bothell-based top team of culinary teens in the state practiced this chic menu—again and again, coordinated to the second—with dreams of perfectly creaming their butter and rivals at the national ProStart competition in Charlotte, N.C., April 20 through May 2. At one critical juncture in the process, senior Rebecca DeWater dipped inflated balloons into liquid white chocolate (to form the chocolate cups) while, elbow to elbow, teammates John Williams ignited a sauce into flames, Heather Helms chopped herbs, and Brian Bixby carved asparagus tips into points. "Most kids don't get to play with knives and fire in school," Williams says, laughing. While the Bothell foursome did not place in the top five at the competition, they at least returned home with sizzling foodie futures. ProStart, a two-year culinary program that prepares students for careers in the food industry, was created by the National Restaurant Association (NRA); it's accredited in this state by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and more than 2,000 students in 50 local high schools participate. To receive a ProStart certificate, students complete 360 hours of classroom instruction and 400 hours of work experience. Some local ProStart trainees help operate in-school cafes to gain experience. Others get cushy culinary proposals. For instance, Microsoft representatives recently called to offer the Bothell students paid weekend jobs in the campus' employee cafeteria. "There are more career openings in the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry than in any other industry in the country," Bothell culinary-arts teacher Joann Bushnell says. She cites the NRA's prediction that the number of jobs in the food-service industry will increase by 1.9 million by 2016. "That's good news for us. These kids love what they're doing." Take Bixby, who will attend Johnson & Wales University's culinary school this fall (on the Rhode Island campus). His passion for food service is simple cause and effect. "I'm a tall guy, so I'm always hungry," he explains. "I really want to eat everything I see, so I guess I just like food, and I want to know how to make it." While ProStart students' overall goal might be gainful employment someday, they find immediate gratification in fierce cooking showdowns. ProStart invitationals are the highlight of the program, the cherry on top. At Washington's invitational in March at South Seattle Community College, the Bothell team vied against 25 other high schools. In front of the prying eyes of judges, the students prepared a three-course meal in 60 minutes. The Bothell chefs in training prevailed with a menu of shrimp cocktail, sautéed chicken breast, and tiramisu, earning them a trip to the national invitational. But team mentor Steven Kilts felt the cooking needed to be, uh, "kicked up a notch" for the next level. As a professional chef, food-service consultant, and former teacher at Johnson & Wales, Kilts relied on his vast experience to develop a revamped menu with the teens. "It's more complicated, but a more complicated menu means the more chances to screw up bad," Kilts says. "I had to have a lot of confidence in these kids to even suggest some of the things on this menu." The team performed practically flawlessly at nationals, finishing one minute ahead of time, Bushnell says. Even though they didn't take home any big trophy, they won where it counted. Consider: "Ours was the only dessert that the dessert judge ate all of," Bushnell says. Even better, judge Guy Fieri, a finalist in The Next Food Network Star, offered Williams—and only Williams, out of the entire national pool of talent—a job in his Santa Rosa restaurant, Johnny Garlic's California Pasta Grill. Williams' easy smile and attentiveness impressed Fieri on the spot, Bushnell says. "I'm definitely gonna own a restaurant of my own someday," says Williams, who caught food fever as a child from his father, who was "always messing around in the kitchen." "Everyone wants to own a restaurant," Kilts replies. "Trust me, you really don't. Eight out of 10 fail within a few years." "Yeah, but I'm really gonna do it," Williams says. "I think you can do it," Bushnell says. "I'll eat at your restaurant." "So will I," Bixby adds. "But I probably won't pay."

 
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