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Through the whiz of escaping steam from the pressure cooker, Guadalupe Gomez is in the final stages of plating her lamb chops. She splits her focus between the cursed clock and the cane-sugar barbecue sauce poured over the lamb chops served on a plate of succotash and celeriac in heavy cream.
"Time to plate?" Gomez yells to her teammates. "Now's the time to push. Let's go."
At the makeshift kitchen in the main hall at West High, Gomez captains a five-person ProStart team working furiously to finish the three-course offering. Erika Gomez-Rodriquez is assisting with Gomez's lamb chops as Jose Islas is putting the final touches on crab cakes with curry aioli. Kelsey Hofer is finishing a chocolate-infused orange mousse sitting in a chocolate boat while alternate Sergio Brito-Morales supervises the entire orchestra.
ProStart, which brings members of the professional community to the classroom, is a national program giving students the opportunity to learn the foundations of the culinary arts. By besting 34 schools in Utah at the state capitol's rotunda March 7, West earned the right to travel to Baltimore to compete in the National ProStart Invitational from April 19 to 21.
"They work together better than any kids I've seen," advisor Judy Davis said. "These kids are just dynamic. They make me proud to be their teacher."
For an hour, West has been preparing a three-course meal with nothing but two butane burners and an ice chest. The menu is a notch above the regular fare cooked in West's cafeteria and prepared under much different circumstances. With no access to electricity or running water, Gomez-Rodriquez said that they have to be as creative in their preparation as their menu.
"It is so stressful getting everything done under an hour," Gomez-Rodriquez said. "Working with the chefs helps us put our own spin on it and do it professionally."
It is a constant stream of chatter throughout the hour. While their biggest enemy in competition is the clock, they can be docked for anything from improper food handling to mishandling their knives. All five are Serve Safe certified and are working toward a career as cooks or pastry chefs.
After the final buzzer, the team takes to the front stoop of the school to cool off. They joke and tease each other as the stress of finishing under time seeps out of them. Working in close confines is the nature of line cooking, and they act like seasoned pros assessing their techniques and meals. In Baltimore, they will be judged on technique, plating and taste. Islas is confident that his crab cakes are the difference.
"We're bringing crab cakes to the home of the crab cake," Islas said. "Yeah, I'm confident we're going to do really well out there."
Sacrificing their spring break to prepare for Nationals has been the cost of being the best in Utah, Hofer said.
"We got our timing down," Hofer said. "If we can just make sure we smooth everything else out, I know we'll be fine. It's so intense, but so much fun."