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Murray Journal

Murray High culinary students place in top 10 at state

May 02, 2019 02:16PM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High culinary students recently competed at the ProStart state competition. (Photo courtesy of Murray High School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Senior Karrie Norton learned in eighth grade about the ProStart culinary arts program at Murray High and knew she wanted to be part of it.

“I love food and I have wanted to work in the food industry for years now,” she said. “I knew I was going to try out and be in the class.”

Not only has Norton been a part of the program, she has competed on the team two years in a row.

“The first year I was competing I learned how to handle the pressure and how to work more as a team than as an individual. This year, as captain, I learned much more on being a positive yet effective leader and lifting my team members up. I put all of my energy into our menu planning and practicing and making sure our menu and our methods were the best we could do,” Norton said.

Her efforts not only lead the team into qualifying for state at regionals, but also snagged ninth place at the state competition.

“The best part was after everything was done. When we could revel in our hard work, the hours that we put in, and we put our heart into the food. This was (senior) Charles (Vargas-Estrada) and my second year competing and after we called ‘time’ at state, we were both overcome with emotions because we have put in a lot of time,” she said. “I always want to improve and do better, but in the moment that we finished the plates, we were proud of what we produced and what we all put into it. We all couldn't have succeeded without each other.”

That team success includes the other two members of Murray High’s team: senior Victor Mata and junior Acacia Swann.

ProStart is a national two-year program for high school students that develops talent for the restaurant and food service industry. Students learn culinary techniques, management skills, communication, customer service skills, math, nutrition, and workplace and food safety procedures. 

In Utah, there are about 70 ProStart programs. Students try out to make their school’s culinary team and then compete at one of the three regional competitions against about 12 to 14 teams. The teams, which typically have about five members, can only use two burners to prepare a three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, entrée and dessert in 60 minutes. Student chefs cannot use electricity. They are judged on techniques such as knife safety to menu planning and from creating a business plan to taste of the prepared meal.

“From our northern region, about five go to state,” Murray High culinary arts teacher K.C. Gray said. “We have four members cooking and an alternate, who helps them with knowing the time on the clock, coaching and prepared to step in if need be.”

Gray said his team started practicing last September once or twice per week, increasing it to three times per week leading to regionals. Together, the team came up with their theme: “We got the heat” and introduced their menu: an appetizer of a pork sausage and Wasatch back jack empanadas with mango and nopales salsa; an entrée of lamb roulade with chipotle hibiscus gastrique; and a dessert of cannoli filled with raspberry habanero mascarpone.

“Students focused on the design, menu and cost as well as being prepared to be judged on being clean, safety, creativity and complexity,” he said. “It’s really cool and amazing to see what they can do, how they can create their flavors, how they work together as a team.”

Norton said through ProStart she has learned responsibility, team work, leadership skills, how to work under pressure and time limits and more.

“The initial challenges were finding harmony with the menu and finding a team dynamic that flowed perfectly, like a well-oiled machine. Other challenges were focused on when we were in what we called the ‘ring’ (the small space we're given to compete in). From making our 60-minute time limit to ensuring we used all our ingredients and time effectively, and all the little surprises that can happen with making food,” she said.

Melva Sine, the president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, which oversees Utah’s ProStart program, said the 20-year program gives students real-life skills.

“These competitors are able to think on their feet, know how to season or flavor, make a plate look as good as it tastes, work as a team to make a decision, and at the same time, know the proper knife safety, grilling, food handling, sanitation procedures,” she said. “It definitely will help them when they work and own their own restaurants.”

This year, ProStart teams will be honored at a May 23 gala honoring the best in the state, including the team from Sandy’s Alta High, who won the state culinary arts championship in its first season and will represent Utah at nationals May 8-10 in Washington, D.C.