The Elk River ProStart team practicing for a cooking competition
The Elk River ProStart team on a practice run.
This spring I sat and watched a cook expertly brunoise an apple, which is to say that his knife skills were so on point that he perfectly cut the fruit into 1-millimeter square cubes. I felt a mix of jealousy and pride because at 45 I haven’t achieved this skill, and this cook wasn’t old enough yet to drive a car.
He was a member of the three-time defending state champion Elk River High School ProStart cooking team, and in my mind there’s no reason they shouldn’t evoke the same awe as hockey in Warroad or football in Eden Prairie. ProStart is a competitive cooking program sponsored by the National Restaurant Association, and there are close to a dozen teams competing in Minnesota. Each team has an instructor, and most also have a professional mentor. Parasole chefs, including Tim McKee and Steven Hesse, have been involved with ProStart teams for years. The unwavering and tireless Seth Bixby Daugherty mentors the Elk River team, bringing it cache from his status as a former Food & Wine Best New Chef and as an advocate of good food in schools and feeding hungry kids through Share Our Strength.
Each ProStart team has five cooks who work with mentors and instructors to plan a three-course menu, which they must learn to execute under tight conditions. They compete with other school teams in a Top Chef–like challenge, 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 the competition, four of the kids cook while one is a lead/alternate who is the only one allowed to taste or comment on what the cooks are doing.
This isn’t the EZ Bake Oven set—these kids have to be ready and confident with their game. The Elk River team members, especially, are serious competitors with drive and ambition. One is also a varsity track runner, another a math team competitor, and yet another once staged at the late La Belle Vie. These young chefs are playing and plating on a national level, and that can only bode well for the future of our own eating scene.
This April, Elk River took the local game to Dallas and competed among the nation’s top schools, including professionally focused cooking high schools (think the Shattuck St. Mary’s of food). Elk River brought local Wild Acres duck and cooked their hearts out, with a goal of finishing in the top 15 (last year they came in 18th). Way to cook, Elk River—we’ll be cheering for you next year, too.