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Murray Journal

Murray High culinary students win state, to compete at nationals

Apr 30, 2022 11:59AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A rack of lamb with a pecan mint filling and root vegetable dumplings. It’s an entrée they’ve created more than 100 times, but five Murray High culinary students are making it again and again this week.

Murray High was crowned Utah ProStart champions March 10, beating 20 teams statewide. It’s the second time the school’s chefs will compete at nationals; the last time was in 2014.

ProStart is a 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.

The Utah Restaurant Association, which oversees Utah’s ProStart program, judge students on techniques from knife safety and creating a business plan to menu planning and the taste of the meal. Students prepared a three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, entrée and dessert in 60 minutes using only two burners and no electricity.

Leading up to the national ProStart championships on May 6 through May 8, the team was tweaking their meal, where they will cook it yet again in front of national judges. In preparation, the students were evaluating each ingredient, each procedure in their menu: the lamb along with a pecan-crusted salmon appetizer and a steamed beet cake with rosemary pastry cream dessert.

“We’re changing it because we need to add more green, more mint (in the rack of lamb filling),” ProStart team member and senior Ozzie Gutierrez said. “We usually sear in a pan, but now we’re torching it with a hand torch for a better color.”

The group also is inviting professional chefs to teach techniques leading up to nationals and were looking at different plating for a better presentation.

“We can’t really change our dishes because we’re submitting photos of them today,” teammate and junior Sierrah Mowder said on April 7.

One thing they will change is double-checking their ingredient list.

After practicing their menu the night before state and again at 6 a.m. the day of the contest, the team loaded their supplies in a trailer to compete at the Salt Palace.

Once they arrived, the team realized they didn’t have flour, egg or lemon.

“We improvised by splitting my flour and egg that I use to bread and then with not having the lemon, we have an orange we use for zest, and we just cut that and used that for citrus,” ProStart teammate and senior Miguel Mejia said.

Gutierrez, who was preparing dumplings, only was able to put three on the plate instead of the intended five. Yet team captain and junior Brooke Bodily pointed out, “We got a perfect score on them and we had right around five minutes left.”

They completed their dishes in 54:35, only the fifth time they hit the hour mark or less, said Mowder, who as a manager, clocks the team. 

While they weren’t able to make their meal, their instructor KC Gray, said there wasn’t any finger-pointing or blaming one another for overlooking the missing ingredients.

“These kids have been easily the best I’ve ever had as a team,” he said. “There has been very minimal drama. They bounce ideas off each other when there’s a problem. They work together, not separately. There’s always been the team input, not a single plate that it’s just one person — and that’s not usual. These kids—they have the potential of winning nationals.”

Though they’re quick with a joke, the students also are equally fast with building up one another.

For example, Mejia compliments his teammate, Angel Gonzalez, the team’s chef tournant, after teasing him.

“He is willing to try something different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; he accepts that,” Mejia said. “He’s quick on his feet and is really strong in his skills and making our team work. If something goes wrong, he’s just like it’s ‘OK, we can fix it this way.’ He’s just quick to think, without panicking about it.”

Gonzalez credits his teacher: “Before I didn’t really have any knowledge…of culinary and Chef (Gray) just opened up and I just learned from him.”

Gray said that every student has improved this year as classes and competitions resumed in-person.

“All these kids are really good and every single one of them has a strong suit,” he said, adding that skill as well as personality and work ethic led to the formation of the team.

The students said they learned more than culinary skills while on the team.

“It teaches you a lot of life lessons and it’s harsh, but it’s honest reality,” Mowder said. “Being a team, I’ve realized a couple things about myself that I need to work on, but I’ve learned so much from Chef (Gray) that I wouldn’t ever even think I’d learn in my lifetime. Having this opportunity has been the biggest thing for me.”

Bodily said the team is dedicated.

“You got to be committed; once you enter that door, all that matters is each other. We’re just focusing on pushing each other to be the best,” she said.

Mejia agrees: “We all have respect for each other.”

Even when they were first creating the menu last fall, they worked together from the theme to the flavoring.

At one point, Gonzalez remembers standing in front of the pantry.

“We decided to just get a whole bunch of seasonings and try them with different things,” he said.

Mejia said with the salmon, they changed the ciders, then went back to maple and added ginger and garlic.

The first thing the group decided on was the salmon appetizer, then the dessert, which Mowder said, “we had the idea, but we actually took the time to perfect it.”

The main dish started as steak and spätzle, but “we decided steak was more common and we wanted to branch out,” Bodily said.

Gutierrez said the spätzle was changed to dumplings, which could be shared with the appetizer and cut down for their time limit. He found a mint filling online they used as a base. They added parsley, parmesan with salt and pepper and experimented until they found a ratio they liked.

While the group is excited to go to Washington, D.C.—none, including Gray, have been there before, and Gonzalez has never been on an airplane—and visit the monuments and The White House, they may have a different view than the typical visitor as they wish they could tour The White House kitchen and are looking forward to dining at a five-star Michelin restaurant.

But their attention is on the competition, where they will wear new uniforms, including new aprons that are personalized with their names and school, and their customized Spartan shoes, created by Gutierrez, who has been doing it as a side business to school.

While their competition is against 55 teams representing the states and armed force bases, Gray said the team is “competing against themselves, not against others. Their goal is to produce better or the same quality over and over. We’re not throwing a ball from one team to another and tackling. Yeah, we’re competing against the others, but all those teams are just as good as these kids. What’s beautiful is that it’s a showcase of skill, a showcase of what the industry can be, and honestly, the potential of the future.”

The teammates said they will be ready to compete as they were for the state competition.

“We stayed focus and didn’t feel nervous at all. We just believed in ourselves,” Mejia said.

Gray agreed: “When they walked in there at state, they walked in with pride in what they were doing. I’ve never had a team do that.”

While they were excited and celebrated their state championship, Mejia remembers also having another thought: “When I heard we won state, I thought, ‘good’ because it was a fun experience and I wanted to do it again.”