Ashley Tubbs quickly arranged spears of asparagus and carrot slices next to a neat row of pork loin medallions in the kitchen at the Schoharie Campus of the Capital Region BOCES on Tuesday.
Ryan Luffman and Rachel Green waited pensively behind Tubbs — Luffman held a hot skillet of sauce and Green had her hands full with spices, both essential elements of the meal and presentation.
Diana Han Fernandez worked to prepare a dessert plate and every few seconds one of the students would cry out a critical request: “Time!”
The team of local high school seniors needed to know how much time was left because they will only get one hour to cook a three-course, fine-dining meal when they represent New York state at the National Restaurant Association’s National ProStart Invitational Culinary Competition later this month.
Last month, the team of culinary arts students beat 13 other teams and brought a state champion trophy home to the Schoharie campus from the association’s state-level ProStart competition in Niagara Falls. And they plan to practice for the next two weeks in an effort to bring a national title back to the valley.
Class instructor Nancy Iannacone, executive chef at the Riverstone Manner in Glenville, and Yono Purnomo, certified executive chef at the award-winning Yono’s restaurant in Albany, inspected the students’ performance and detailed a host of things they might have done better.
The critique by Iannacone and Purnomo provides a glimpse of the precise, technical details world-renowned cooking judges will be eyeing during the upcoming competition.
When they finished their practice meal with time to spare Tuesday morning, the students didn’t appear to blink an eye when they were told the mashed potatoes were a bit dry, as was the tiny crab cake in the salad.
The salad was called a crab cakes and cucumber-fennel salad. Since it had “cucumber” in the title, it should have contained more cucumbers, the students were told. And the fennel was sliced a bit too thick. A bit of lime and butter on top of the dessert might help it stand out more, the students learned.
The team could lose points by simply labeling their entree as a broiled pork loin if it’s actually a sauteed pork loin, the instructors said.
And the picky judges may deduct points if they feel the meat was left to sit after cooking for too long.
“This is the only way the students learn more,” Purnomo said.
The students prepared a fancy salad with a crabcake as an appetizer before a main course consisting of sliced pork loin and vegetables drizzled with a cranberry merlot sauce alongside a dollop of garlic mashed potatoes with white cheddar.
For dessert, they prepared a chocolate bourbon cake over an espresso-carmelized banana with mixed berries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries topped with pecans and a cocoa powder.
Iannacone is driving the team hard. She believes they are the tightest group she’ll bring to the national competition. It’s the fourth time the Schoharie campus will send culinary arts students to the event.
“In the past, cohesiveness has been an issue. This group is very cohesive,” she said.
Teams bring their own supplies and have only two small cooking devices at their disposal: a single gas-fueled burner and a tiny camp oven. They bring their own water, bottled to ensure cleanliness, and they have a small space to work in while they compete.
“I’d say the biggest challenge is the space,” said team leader Rachel Green, 17, a senior at Sharon Springs High School. “There’s a lot of commotion that needs to go on.”
That requires tasks to be performed on time, and if they aren’t, somebody has to help those who fall behind on their tasks, Green said.
Team member Ryan Luffman, 17, a Cobleskill-Richmondville student, said he expects competing alone will help with his goals of pursuing further studies in culinary arts.
“I think it’s really going to help with college,” he said.
Iannacone will be busing the team down to Baltimore to face off with more than 300 other students at the national competition April 19–21. In addition to recognition, the competition will be yielding $1.4 million in scholarships.