This year, South Carolina has taken home three national titles in baseball, football, and basketball. With any luck, this Saturday, we’ll claim a fourth — the coveted National High School Culinary Competition gold. And on our home turf.
This weekend, the National ProStart Invitational for culinary arts and restaurant management takes over the Charleston Area Convention Center with over 400 high school students from across the country vying to be named best culinary arts and best restaurant management team in the nation. Representing the Palmetto State is Anderson Career and Technology Center’s eight students, the only school competing in both the culinary arts and management divisions. And these kids aren’t playing.
Their training began months ago. “In October we held tryouts,” says Anderson coach Chris Moree. The California Culinary Academy grad has been running Anderson’s culinary program for seven years and with great success.
“My program is a two and half year program. Tenth grade is an intro, a preview of what to expect. From that, I get students to populate for junior year. Some are pretty fresh and new and didn’t have the intro and come in and want to do this. Then, by end of September, we’re getting ready for tryouts for the team,” says Moree. “It all depends on how dedicated they are. I always tell my kids, ‘I can teach you to cook, I can’t teach you to care.’”
That motto has paid off. In 2015 Moree’s culinary arts team made it to the national competition and placed fourth. This year, his kids are hoping to take the title.
While culinary arts is an elective course, ProStart teams operate as a club for competitions. That means that beyond Moree’s classroom lessons on how to sauté, create a business plan, and prepare mise en place, Moree’s students spend hours after school perfecting their competition game plans.
“For the culinary team, we brainstorm and plan what we want to cook. Then we investigate recipes. Management is brainstorming any ideas possible for restaurant concepts. Then we filter through that, choose the dishes for culinary and test the recipes again and again,” says Moore.
For the culinary arts competition, each team is given one hour to prepare a three course meal with no running water or electricity. That’s right, all the kids get are two bunsen burners. They provide all of their food and tools themselves. And yet somehow, within these tight restrictions, the Anderson Career and Technology Center’s team is preparing a lemon chiffon cake.
“We found this box oven on Amazon that you can set on top of the burner,” says Moree. “Baking a cake ties up a burner for a long time, so you have to strategize the rest of your dishes.” And strategize they have. The Anderson team isn’t just preparing pu pu platter-level dishes. They’re putting out a serious, three-course meal that any chef would appreciate.
“They’re preparing a rabbit roulade with the leg and thigh stuffed in foie gras with prosciutto for the appetizer. Then they’ll sauté some petite vegetables, snow peas and carrots and make a stock from the rabbit bones and serve that with a carrot puree,” says Moree talking rapid fire. “The entree is a pan-seared seabass with roasted fingerling potatoes. Nothing can be pre-fabricated or pre-mixed. The sea bass is served with a sauté of leeks and turnips and tarragon butter sauce. Then, for dessert, we have our take on strawberry shortcake with the lemon mascarpone mouse and lemon chiffon cake.”
If that sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But that’s how the Anderson team came out No. 1 in the state finals. Now, it’s up to team members Makayla Cartee, Seth Mahaffey, Rose Sapp, Alyssa Swiss, and Lydia Syvock to put it all on the line on Saturday morning at 9:20 a.m. If they’re successful? Well, the top four teams all get scholarships.
But even without big scholarship wins, Moree hopes he’s instilled a lifelong love of cooking to his team. He’s seen his past students go on to careers in hospitality. “I’ve had several go on to culinary schools or work in the industry. One is working in Charleston now and went to Arts Institute. The team from 2015 that 4th at nationals, all five have gone on to culinary school.”
Maybe this group will do the same. For now, though, there’s just one thing on Team Anderson’s mind. Get through the competition and then get to dinner.
“The team did a lot of fundraising selling iced coffees to students at school to afford to go out to dinner in Charleston,” says Moree. “We’re going to Trattoria Lucca on Thursday, Circa 1886 on Friday, and The Drawing Room on Saturday.”
Well played, kids. Well played.