On the cutting edge

For weeks, five students in the Oak Harbor High School culinary arts program have been fine tuning a menu they hope will win a state competition this weekend and open the door for productive careers in the restaurant business.

They started developing their menu in January. One Monday night in February, 42 food aficionados swarmed to the high school and sampled the menu during an annual dinner the team serves as preparation for the contest. Not only does the dinner provide some much-needed practice for the team, it is a valuable fundraiser to help pay for supplies and travel costs. This year’s cook-off is across the state in Spokane.

People who attended the $40 sold-out dinner enjoyed a three-course meal. The appetizer was a Ahi Tuna Tartar and Dungeness Crab Tower with Avocado, Yellow Beets, Wonton Crisp and Mango Yolk. The tempting entree consisted of Lavender Buttermilk Sour-Vide Chicken Breast with Hubbard Squash Sautee, Blue Cheese Corn Fritter and Grape Salsa. Dessert was a Bittersweet Chocolate Blood Orange Bar with Basil Ice Cream and Black Pepper Blueberry Compote.

Senior Nick Brazelton, who is an alternate on the team, said team members started preparing the evening’s menu during the school’s second period and continue working throughout the day.

Classes and Monday’s practice dinner aren’t the only times the five devoted team members hone their skills and menu. They even come in on weekends to work.

“We come in on Sundays and Saturday and practice,” Brazelton said as his teammates were busy preparing the meal. Being an alternate, he has to learn all of the recipes so he can jump in when needed.

The weekend practice sessions gives the team experience competing against the timer and working without having their advisor, Scott Fraser, around. Fraser, who has been volunteering his time with the high school culinary program for years, owns Frasers Gourmet Hideaway located in downtown Oak Harbor.

In addition to Brazelton, senior Tatyanna Thompson, senior Jan Angel, senior Jackie Palmer and junior Alena Stapel round out the team.

Oak Harbor High School’s culinary arts program has garnered several prestigious awards in recent years. In addition to winning the state cooking competition last year, that team members got to show off their prowess during a national competition in Charlotte, NC.

The school’s program provides practical cooking experience that opens the door into the restaurant world.

Thompson, who is the captain of this year’s team, is planning to attend Western Culinary Institute in Portland once she graduates from high school. She is in her third year participating in the school’s culinary program. Thompson said she likes the variety cooking offers.

“Everything is always hands-on and every day I learn something new,” Thompson said as she was melting chocolate that was used in her orange bars.

For Stapel, the culinary arts program will help her get into a culinary program.

“I always loved cooking and always wanted to pursue it as a career and I knew culinary instruction would get me ahead of the game,” Stapel said as she prepared her appetizer Thursday morning. Her other teammates where busy chopping squash, making ice cream and other components needed to complete their meal.

When they prepare their food during the competition, teams only have two butane burners and an ice chest to work with. They’ll have a pair of 8-foot tables for a work space. The two-hour competition is divided into several parts. The team has 15 minutes to set up, 30 minutes to show their knife skills, 45 minutes to prep, and one hour to prepare their meals.

Culinary Arts instructor Louise Reuble said the practices the students undertake mimic the conditions they will encounter in the competition.

The competition, known as the 2008 Boyd Coffee ProStart Invitational, takes place March 7 and 8 in Spokane. Oak Harbor will compete against 24 other teams from around the state in cooking. The school is also sending a team to compete in the restaurant management category.

In addition to the recognition that comes with winning the competition, scholarship opportunities from the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales University, Walla Walla Community College and Western Culinary Institute are up for grabs.

The overall winning teams will have a chance to compete in the national competition that takes place next April in San Diego.

The teams headed to Spokane yesterday, March 7. Instead of driving the students took the train, which Reuble said offered a reasonable price and new experience.

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