Wildcat culinary team continues reign as state champs

Culinary team member Nicholas Merrick pours the carmel sauce for the dessert. - Photo courtesy of Leandra Reuble
Culinary team member Nicholas Merrick pours the carmel sauce for the dessert.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Leandra Reuble

While the average teen can cook Chef Boyardee without much trouble, it takes some culinary know-how to “paint” a chocolate dessert tower with an oil mister.

The teens from Oak Harbor High School’s culinary team did just that last weekend, as they won their fourth state championship in a row. It was also the first time the high school’s restaurant management team claimed the state title.

Both teams will move on to the national ProStart Invitational in Overland Park, Kan., this April.

“We are basically representing Washington at national competition,” culinary arts instructor Louise Reuble said.

Though the story is a little bit different each year, local chef and nine-year mentor Scott Fraser said the culinary program has been at the top of it’s game for a while. The team has won the coveted culinary championship six times since 2000.

During that time, Reuble was named state teacher of the year for culinary arts in 2003 and Fraser was once designated Mentor of the Year.

Fraser said the level of cooking he’s seen over the years has grown from experience, community support and a rigorous practice schedule.

“The students come in on their own time on Sunday to work with the teacher. When you have to come in on a day when you would usually be flaking off, it builds dedication,” Fraser said.

Success also comes from creativity and the team’s ability to work with less, Fraser said.

At state and national competition, the rules ask that students create a three-course meal in 60 minutes or less with only two portable burners. Teams use a cooler and ice for refrigeration and hand crank appliances. Electric operated equipment and running water are not available.

“The competitions are done in an auditorium or ballroom, not a kitchen,” Reuble said. “It’s kind of like camping indoors. It’s very difficult.”

This year, Oak Harbor used a pressure cooker to prepare short ribs, which traditionally require slow cooking. But the idea sped the process up. Fraser said that in the past, the team was the first to use molecular gastronomy, or the chemistry of cooking, for a dish.

The restaurant management team, which was armed with knowledge of everything from recipe portfolios to accounting strategies, also spent months preparing for the contest. The National Restaurant Association changed this year’s competition to a new, college-level format.

“A lot of schools found it very time consuming,” Reuble said. “What I thought was ‘This is going to be fun.’ We based it on what we do on a regular basis.”

Many of the culinary arts students work for Wildcat Catering, which delivers Friday lunches to teachers and caters in the community. The restaurant management team presented a restaurant concept similar to the school’s catering company, named the “Lunch Box.” People email in their lunch orders, and deliveries are made the next day using compostable materials. The judges were impressed.

“What they heard repeatedly from the judges was ‘This is right on, this is very timely and your concept could make money,’” Reuble said.

The teens also put together eight portfolios, a power-point presentation and a three-sided display and had a question and answer session.

Fraser said he expects a good showing from both teams, and holds out hope that his five-student culinary squad can improve on its record. Three years ago, the team finished in the teens at nationals. Last year it ended in eighth place. This year, Fraser predicts it will at least break into the top five.

The award-winning meal they will prepare at nationals is an appetizer of calamari shrimp and panzanella salad with tomato-basil coulee and balsamic ink. The entree is deconstructed beef short rib with truffle scented open ravioli, creamed leeks, parsnip hummus and a braising juice reduction with parsnip crisps. Dessert is a painted white chocolate and hazelnut tower with dark chocolate espresso sauce and caramel sauce.

The team faced off against 21 schools across Washington in areas such as knife skills, organization and serving the tastiest meal.

“One judge said they had an intensity about them,” Reuble said. “They had the same intensity as a high-level restaurant.”

The travel expenses for both teams to make it to nationals will cost about $10,000, Fraser said, so the teams will launch a series of fundraisers in the upcoming months.

The first fundraiser will be Sunday, April 11, at Frasers Gourmet Hideway, located at 1191 SE Dock St. in Oak Harbor. The culinary team will prepare their competition dish and the management team will serve. Tickets can be purchased by calling 360-279-1231. The event will begin at 6 p.m.

Donations to the culinary program can be made directly through the Oak Harbor Education Foundation in care of Jones Accounting Associates, located at 1199 SE Dock Street in Oak Harbor.

A slide show of the culinary competition can be viewed at

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