ProStart team member Courtney Lachapelle checks a pork chop Monday during the Lewiston Regional Technical Center’s culinary team run-through of the menu they will cook for judges Saturday at the statewide competition in Portland. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Cooking a three-course meal at home is one thing, but imagine being 18 years old and doing it in 60 minutes in front of 300 people and 15 judges.

On Monday, five days before the Maine ProStart Invitational in Portland, six students in the Lewiston Regional Technical Center’s culinary program were performing a full run-through of their meal — all in less than an hour.

Dan Caron, chef instructor, stood outside the cooking area answering a few student questions but otherwise remaining relatively quiet as he observed.

“Don’t ever look like you’re bored,” he told his students as they began setting up their appliances.

Caron will be prohibited from talking to or helping his students in any way during the competition Saturday, which, depending on their performance, could send the students on to national competition.

“This is all about teamwork,” Caron said. “They’re a good team. They care for each other, but they’re competitive.”

The nationwide ProStart Program is a curriculum grounded in culinary techniques and restaurant management, and reaches about 140,000 high school students.

This year, 14 Maine high schools are using the ProStart curriculum; five, including LRTC, are competing in the state invitational Feb. 17 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

This is Caron and LRTC’s sixth year competing at ProStart. Caron has taken his team to nationals twice and placed second the other three years.

The Maine Restaurant Association Education Foundation sponsors the competition, and sends the winning team to the National ProStart Invitational, which is in April in Rhode Island.

During the competition Saturday, the teams will be judged on proper uniforms, communication, setting up, plating appearance, organization, food handling, cutting styles, tasting and knife technique.

“There’s so much to it,” Caron said. “The regular person wouldn’t see how they’re holding their knives and all the sanitation pieces to it, but (the students) know they’re being judged on all of that.”

Fifteen minutes into Monday’s run-through, team captain Makennah Pelletier, a senior, shouted “45 minutes,” as she diligently checked her clipboard, which is organized in five-minute increments.

“Heard,” her team yelled in response.

Pelletier must stay in front of the cooking station, but can hold recipes, timelines and notes to communicate to her team.

“It’s a great lesson in problem-solving and teamwork,” LRTC Director Rob Callahan said. “They have to do it all on their own.”

As the minutes raced by, senior Amanda Ouellette began assembling the appetizer: marinated cucumber uramaki stuffed with mascarpone.

Courtney Lachapelle, a vegetarian, was grilling the pork chop, which was served with fig, citrus and balsamic compote.

Jada Tuttle assisted with the sweet potatoes, which were layered with goat cheese and pecans, as she also helped teammate Cheyenne Pesce with the dessert.

“That’s the tricky part,” Caron said. “Cheyenne has to bake on a burner because there’s no ovens.”

After much trial and error in the months leading up to the competition, Pesce came up with an orange-infused molten chocolate cake served with pistachio whipped cream.

“We try to have them come up with the menu ideas, as much as possible,” pastry instructor Rebecca Levesque said. “And then (we) just fill in when they need help.”

As the minutes continued to wind down, the months of preparation became evident as students assembled their plates and continued to show encouragement to one another.

“Breathe. You’re a champ,” Lachapelle said to Pesce as she placed the finishing touches on her dessert plate.

Every weekend for approximately three months, the six ProStart students have come to school to work on their performance.

They practice starting at 5:30 a.m., at nights, on holidays and during their regular class time.

“It’s a lot,” Pesce said. “But it’s not something I don’t want to do. If I could, I would spend all my time here.

“All the girls that are on the team, this is their passion and this takes up their entire life and they want it to.”

Time ran out and Caron had the students practice carrying their plates around the tables at The Green Ladle, the culinary school’s restaurant, as if they were bringing it to the judges’ table Saturday.

The students critiqued their work and Caron offered a few words of encouragement.

“This is gold material, folks,” he said, “it really is.”

ProStart team member Amanda Ouellette of the Lewiston Regional Technical Center on Monday tosses ingredients of a dish culinary students will prepare for judges Saturday at the statewide competition in Portland. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)


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