Culinary students from Lejeune High School stepped up to the plate and became state champions at the Carolina's ProStart Invitational culinary competition in Charleston, S.C., recently, and are getting ready for the next level of competition.
High school students Kaylah Bruce, Sadarria Reeves, Christian Waterhouse, Telena Weber and Ja'Nai Thomas will be competing against more than 40 schools from across the nation, including teams from Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, at the 11th annual National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore, April 27 to 29.
There, the team will have less than three hours to set up their cooking areas, showcase knife and production skills, cook, present and clean up their stations, all the while being thoroughly critiqued.
"These are high school kids, but when they judged them (at state), they judged as if they were adults in a business," said Shirley Bryan, the Culinary Arts I and II teacher at LHS. "My philosophy is to not believe anything the judges say during the competition, especially if it sounds good. Sometimes they'll say you did an outstanding job, but someone else still may have done better. Cooking is just like basketball: on any given day, any team can win. Our day was at (state) because they worked hard."
Bryan said she had hoped that the team would come in third place or maybe second, but had no clue the team would become state champions.
Whether they win or lose, she says, as long as they work together, have fun and learn something, they are still winners.
"Leading up to this, the students in both of my classes had input on developing the entire menu," said Bryan. "I allow all my students to choose what they want to do. If they succeed, that's fine, and if they fail, that's fine. But I always tell them you have to fail before you know what success is."
Bryan added that LHS has taken first place three times before in the past five years, despite the fact that LHS is the smallest high school in North Carolina. On the other hand, LHS has the most students participating in its ProStart program in the state.
Since 2006, the high school has garnered a whopping $1.3 million in scholarships for the culinary department alone, which is second only to JROTC.
"We take what we do very seriously and the other teachers are just as committed as I am," said Bryan. "We hope (the high school) keeps the program for a long time."
Bryan, who always expects the best from her culinary classes, said that the win would probably not have been possible without the counsel of a friend in the culinary field, Chef Erik Lampe.
Chef Lampe, the executive chef with Marine Corps Community Services Clubs & Catering Division, became the high school team's culinary mentor and was an integral part in the team's training during the weeks leading up to the championships.
Lampe said the competition the students participated in would have challenged most any professional chefs, let alone high school students, due to the limited facilities and short preparation period involved.
"Having a background in some culinary competitions and just the nature of what I do for a living helped me work with the students and Shirley Bryan to see what was working and what wasn't," said Lampe. "When I first spoke with Shirley, I was really excited to help them as much as I could. But it had to be their ideas and backgrounds because that is the foundation for their menu. Now, they're representing the school, (Marine Corps Base) Camp Lejeune and Eastern North Carolina."
Lampe said the parameters of the competition were very strict so he thought of many ways to help the team as best he could. The competition required participants to use only butane burners to make an entire meal in virtually an hour. There wasn't much room for failure and points could easily be deducted by the judges.
"I was more of an extra set of eyes for the team," said Lampe. "I gave them a view of what the judge might be looking for. Sanitation above all but it's also the group learning how to work as a team. The small time window that they had to get ready makes me look at them and say, 'Wow.' When I first met them five or six weeks before, they really came a long way. Their success is really commonest to how serious they took it and how hard they worked at it."
Lampe said the team also did a great job juggling their other academic and scholastic commitments. Anyone who has heard of their recent success and knows of the adversity they faced should definitely be proud of them.
"Now it's time to take it to nationals," said Lampe. "The competition will be stiffer, the judging perhaps a little more critical, but regardless of the outcome, it will be a lasting experience they will remember and benefit from in the years ahead."