There’s a local high school team representing Minnesota in the national championships in Texas this weekend, but no sportscasters will be mentioning it. Because it’s a team of cooks.
What if the patches on your high school letter jacket weren’t shaped like soccer balls or footballs, but like whisks and knives? Instead of chasing touchdowns and wearing cleats you brunoised and wore whites? You’d be a proud competitor of the ProStart League, and you’d be cooler than any meathead jock, at least in my book.
I got a chance to hang out with the three-time defending state championship ProStart team from Elk River while they practiced before heading to compete at nationals this week in Dallas. Each team has an instructor, and most also have a professional mentor. Parasole chefs have been involved with ProStart teams for years, Tim McKee and Steven Hesse have long been mentors. Elk River has been mentored by the unwavering and tireless Seth Bixby Daugherty, a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, and a fixture on the local scene known for his advocacy of good food in schools and feeding hungry kids through Share Our Strength.
Here are the bones of competing: Each team has five cooks, and at Elk River these spots are coveted and must be tried out for and won. The cooks work with their mentors and instructors to plan a full three-course menu, which they then have to learn to execute under tight conditions. They compete with other school teams in what’s really like a Top Chef episode, completing the three-course meal in one hour using two butane burners while being judged on teamwork, sanitation, menu presentation, and taste, along with knife skills. During competition, four of the kids cook while one is a lead/alternate and the only one who can taste or comment on what the cooks are doing. The instructors and mentors are not allowed to speak or taste during the timed competition. So these kids have to be ready and be confident with their game.
It’s all about repetition and knowledge, and the day I hung out with them they’d been invited to do a practice run in the closed kitchen of Spoon & Stable. Chef Gavin Kaysen and local poultry king Pat Ebnet of Wild Acres gave the kids a great class on duck, showing them how they break down a bird and the difference between a fresh duck breast and a cured duck breast. The kids quietly watched, they took notes as Kaysen showed them his best tips for rendering the fat, teaching them both the tricks and the pitfalls that might happen.
Then they practiced knife skills, and as I watched a kid brunoise a vegetable like a madman, I felt both jealous and proud. These kids are all doing this for fun and love of cooking. They are serious competitors with drive and ambition—one is also a varsity track runner, another a math team competitor, and one had already staged with Nikki Francoual when La Belle Vie was open. This isn’t the EZ Bake Oven set, and they deserve our support and as loud a raucous cheer as we give hockey players during the tournament. These kids are playing and plating on a national scene, some before they can even drive, and that can only bode well for the future of our own eating scene.
This weekend they’ll be competing in Dallas among the nation’s top schools, and you should understand that there will be teams there that come from schools that are primarily culinarily focused, like the Shattuck St. Mary’s of cooking. Last year the team came in 18th, in the country. This year, their goal is crack the top 15 and I think they can do it. I told them to watch Miracle the night before.
You can keep tabs and watch along with the live stream on the ProStart facebook page. But maybe when you flip your gas burner on, or pull out a knife to chop some chives this weekend, send a little vibe out into the universe for Elk River and the future of MN food.