OLATHE, Kan. -- A hotel ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland will be transformed into a giant kitchen later this month for an intense, real-world competition for high school culinary students. TV cameras will be recording it all for The Food Network as the teenagers go for big, big scholarship money in the National ProStart Invitational. And look for this week's FOX 4 Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achievers to be among the favorites.
It's getting down to crunch time in a hallway at Olathe North High School where culinary students have set up a makeshift kitchen. This team is cooking here instead of the school's gleaming, state-of-the-art culinary center to make their practices as realistic as possible for the pressure-cooker competition they are headed toward -- the National ProStart Invitational.
"It's the Super Bowl for high school culinary students," says Chef Mike Chrostowski, an instructor in the Olathe School District culinary program.
His team of Kylie Michaels, Brandon Ramirez, Erika Carsella, Lauryn Markle and Keagan Kingery are the 2012 Kansas high school ProStart Culinary Team champions. And at the national competition, they'll slice and dice and sear and sauté their way through a grueling 60 minute test of skill, knowledge, focus and teamwork -- preparing a masterpiece three course meal using no electricity or refrigeration and cooking on just two small propane burners.
"We've had several guest chefs come in and critique," says Chef Mike, and normally one of the comments they make before they leave is, 'I don't even know how you could do that. I could not do that.' It's a challenge. It really is."
"It's going to be a lot of stress and pressure," says Olathe culinary student Kylie Michaels. Kylie knows what's ahead. She and Brandon Ramirez went to the national ProStart competition last year on an Olathe team that finished second in the nation.
"Pretty much what you see on (the popular cable TV show) Top Chef, says Kylie. "You're going to have cameras. You're going to have everyone watching you. And you're going to be there cooking with hundreds of people standing around you."
Meantime, in another room in the school culinary center, four other Olathe students are fine-tuning their impressive concept and complete business plan for a new theme restaurant called The Studio. And they are rehearsing a 10 minute presentation they will make to the judges at the National ProStart Invitational. They are the Kansas high school ProStart Management Team champions. The members of this team are Tiffany Surritt, Kelsey Voss, Calie Francis and Mason Halfert. Their challenge is to convince the judges to pick their restaurant plan to invest in, if they had the venture capital to do it. Senior Tiffany Surritt came up with the idea -- and the whole team jumped in and developed with Chef Connie Nieman, also an instructor in the program, guiding them.
"It is so intense," says Tiffany. "It's day in and day out on your mind. It doesn't leave. It's not like you can walk in to a kitchen and cook and then walk out. It's there. It doesn't go away. Ideas come to your head and you try to apply them to your concept."
Both teams of young Olathe kitchen magicians will be going for much more than glory at the National ProStart Invitational. A lot of scholarship money and career opportunities are at stake.
"They're playing for full-ride scholarships," says Chef Mike. "So basically $100,000 a student is what we're looking at. All the most elite culinary schools in the nation are wanting these students to come in and join their program."
And that means everything to the students on these two teams, some of whom would not be able to go to those elite schools without a big win.
"And so it's the biggest thing in my life right now," says Kylie. They are ready for the big time -- and a real world challenge with a real world payoff.
The Olathe School District culinary program, which is part of the district's 21st Century High School Programs centering on in-demand fields, has had remarkable success at the National ProStart Invitational with a first place finish in 2010 and second place finishes last year and in 2009. Meantime, congratulations go out to the culinary team from the Herndon Career Center in Raytown, MO, as well. Herndon students are the Missouri high school ProStart champions and will also compete in the national competition. A Herndon culinary team won the National ProStart championship two years ago.
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