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Oak Harbor’s culinary arts teams aim high at nationals
Racheal Balasa got so busy setting things up, she forgot to set one thing in particular.
“She overslept,” said Phil Balasa, her dad. “It never went off. I think she forgot to set it.
“It’s usually the case when there’s a very intense moment going on with her, she remembers the details of everything else and will forget the most simple thing.”
But Balasa surprised her dad by popping out of bed virtually prepared, and was ready to go “in five minutes.” Enough time to stop and get a “white chocolate frappuccino” on the way.
Balasa and six other members from Oak Harbor High School’s culinary arts program packed up and boarded a shuttle just before 7 a.m. Thursday to catch a flight to Baltimore, Md.
They are competing in the National ProStart Invitational, which runs all weekend and wraps up Sunday. The event, including the awards ceremony, will be streamed live on NRAEF.org/watchlive.
This is the sixth time in seven years that Oak Harbor has competed in the national event, but the first time two teams have gone.
Oak Harbor is represented by a culinary team and a restaurant management team. Both teams won state championships in March to earn a trip to the national event.
“This is probably the best year yet,” said Scott Fraser, owner of Frasers Gourmet Hideaway and longtime mentor of the high school program. “The team has just worked extremely hard to get to this point and they want to come home with the first prize, which is the best high school in the nation.”
Oak Harbor’s culinary team finished fifth at the national event last year.
Balasa, a senior, was part of that team and returned this year as team captain. She is joined on the culinary team by juniors Haley Garden and Joanna Leete and sophomore Sara Jackson.
The restaurant management team consists of seniors Michelle Lambert and Robert Clemena and sophomore Patrick Salgado.
“I feel like we’re going to do really well,” Balasa said. “We placed fifth last time and I feel like we’re even more prepared this time.”
Mary Arthur, culinary instructor at the high school, is joined by Fraser and two parent chaperones on the Baltimore trip.
At the competion, the culinary team is judged by how well it prepares a three-course meal in 60 minutes, using only two butane burners with no access to running water or electricity. The team is evaluated on taste, skill, teamwork, safety and sanitation.
The management team must come up with a proposal for the “next hot restaurant concept” and present it to a panel of industry judges, then solve challenges posed to them.
Packing for the trip was an adventure.
“I’m lucky to remember my name right now,” Arthur joked Wednesday night.
Oak Harbor’s culinary team will be preparing the same course it has impressed judges with all year: Seared Ahi salad Nicoise with watercress sauce, rabbit three ways, mole sauce, polenta and poached spice pears, passion fruit panna cotta, white chocolate mousse, almond tuile and passion fruit fettucini.
The students had to meticulously and efficiently pack ingredients, cookware and other items into large plastic bins to take with them to Baltimore.
“We bring all the ingredients, all the equipment,” Arthur said. “Just in the cutting boards we use, it’s almost 50 pounds.”
One by one, plastic tubs were carefully stacked in the back of shuttle Thursday morning.
Fraser kept his eye on one blue bin in particular.
“Be careful with that one. That one can’t tip over,” Fraser offered with a smile.
That bin contained cold ingredients, packed in ice packs, including the rabbit.
“No fur or tail,” Fraser said. “Basically, it’s a whole rabbit that we have to debone and create our dish with it.We actually make three different items on our dish with the rabbit.”
He said there was an order to how that bin is organized.
“The whole idea for us is to have it packed in a way that the proteins have to be in the bottom, our creams above that, vegetables on top of that,” Fraser said. “That way you don’t cross-contaminate.”
Arthur said the support for the school’s culinary program has been overwhelming. The program also is part of Wildcat Catering, which hosted a dinner last month to help raise money for the trip.
“If it were not for the support of the Oak Harbor community, there’s no way the students would be able to compete in this,” Arthur said. “This is an extremely supportive community.”
She said the local Elks donated the use of their club for last month’s fundraiser dinner. Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle discounted its rates.
“This list goes on and on for the different organizations that have helped this team get to nationals and be successful,” Arthur said. “Also, the amount of time Scott Fraser puts into training these students.
They’ve practiced twice a week every week since the beginning of January.
“It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through a lot of hard work and a lot of support from the community.”
There will be three opportunities to watch Oak Harbor on the live stream at the national invitational.
The culinary team will be cooking at 7:30 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday. The management team will be presenting at 10 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday.
The awards ceremony will take place at Sunday, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Pacific.
Teams representing 43 states and territories will be competing at the event.
Phil Balasa will be watching the feed from his living room in Oak Harbor. His wife Julie accompanied their daughter on the trip.
He remembers how intense it was watching the awards ceremony last year.
“You wait with bated breath as they tell you who the runners-ups are,” Phil Balasa said. “Fifth place comes along and they announced it last year and it was like jaw-dropping because of the fact that you’re not expecting a little school from the middle of nowhere in upper Washington state on an island to be named nationally. There are kids from across the and from across the world there.”
Reach Whidbey News-Times staff reporter Ron Newberry at 360-67-6611 (ext. 5070) or firstname.lastname@example.org