LEWISTON — With only one hour, two burners and no refrigerator, four high school students in a culinary contest made the kind of three-course meal served in fine restaurants.
The Lewiston Regional Technical Center's Green Ladle students won the ProStart Culinary Competition Saturday at Southern Maine Community College. They beat five other high school teams from regional technical centers.
High school seniors Jessica Hensen, Alex Badich, Leah Goldsbury and Kristianna Benoit will represent Maine in the national ProStart Culinary Competition. The four earned their way to be in the competition by previous work, said Green Ladle Director Dan Caron.
Green Ladle, LRTC's culinary program, often wins state SkillsUSA championships, but this was the first time the program entered ProStart, a challenging competition sponsored by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. National winners receive four-year, full-tuition awards.
During Saturday's competition, “we had no running water," said team captain Kristinna Benoit, 17, a senior at Lisbon High. "We had to get water we needed at the beginning.”
They used cambros (sealed coolers with ice), instead of refrigerators. The four worked in tight quarters, an eight-by-eight foot space. “The hardest part was the timing,” Benoit said, executing everything so it came out chilled or hot at the right moment.
Their appetizer was a sesame seared tuna with mixed greens and wasabi sauce. The entree was steamed salmon with baby greens on couscous infused with saffron (an expensive spice), topped with pico de gallo, a salsa-like blend of mangoes, red peppers, cucumbers, cilantro and lime.
The dessert was Petit Gateau crepes made with chocolate layers and a salted caramel whipped cream, along with a bruleed banana wedge on the side, both placed on a layer of caramel sauce.
While Henson and Goldsberry created the dessert, Badich and Benoit whipped up the appetizer and entree.
As soon as the hour started, the dessert pair had 20 minutes to use one burner. They then had to surrender it to the two making the tuna and salmon dishes.
The competition was intense, Caron said, who was there with pastry instructor Brianne Doyle. Near the end, “the judges yelled out, 'One minute,'” Caron said. “We looked at each other and said, 'They're not going to make it!'”
Soon the judges announced that there were 30 seconds left, then 10 seconds, “and they were still working!” Caron said. “I yelled out, 'Plate the thing!'” The judges announced there were four seconds left, “and I'm sweating bullets.” The plates went down, with only two seconds to go.
Students were most nervous when they arrived and saw three-course meals being plated by the competition.
“They were amazing,” Benoit remarked. “I said, 'We've got to step it up.'”
When the judges announced the winner, “we all clapped and screamed,” she said.
Caron and Doyle praised Benoit for her skills as a captain, saying she executed great leadership. “The judges called her 'the mother hen,'” Doyle said.
Caron said he didn't expect his students to win, and is thrilled with their work and how they carried themselves. “From the minute they got there, they were professionals,” he said.
One of the judges was David Turin of David's 388, David's and David's Opus Ten restaurants in Portland. Turin will be one of their coaches for the national competition, Caron said.
“To me, he's the best chef in New England,” Caron said. Turin was so pleased with the LRTC students' dishes, he said he'd put all three on his menu, Caron stated. “He said, 'I want all your resumes on my desk Monday morning. You all have summer jobs, if you want them.'”
Richard Grotton of the Maine Restaurant Association was at the competition and said the LRTC students are “a great team to represent Maine — from their demeanor, their appearance, their team spirit, their presentations. Their food was elegant."
Turin, whom Grotton called "a premier chef in Maine," told the students, "This dessert is of national caliber."
"That's a home run," Grotton said.
Grotton said he didn't get to taste anything the LRTC students made. “The judges ate it all.”
The national competition will be in April in Baltimore.