A team of high school culinarians whipped up a meal so good it earned a state title earlier this month when the Technology Center of DuPage in Addison placed first in the 13th annual Illinois ProStart Student Invitational.
The five students on the team, plus a student assistant and two coaches, have been practicing as much as four times a week since September, honing techniques and recipes to continue what has become a bit of a dynasty.
The center's ProStart team has now won three straight state titles, and came within a half point of winning last year's national competition.
"It's a high standard to live up to, especially because we were mostly first years. Nobody's done it before," said Mary Hoare, a junior at Wheaton North. "We've got a ... legacy to maintain. But I was never really worried about it, honestly. We did a lot of prep work, a lot of hard work and we were really disciplined. We did 12 full run-throughs – there really wasn't room for us to make a lot of errors."
Teams of four high schoolers plus an alternate had an hour to churn out an appetizer, entree and dessert for judging at the Feb. 8 competition at Kendall College in Chicago.
Along the way, they had to impress not only with taste and originality, but by showcasing their techniques.
The center's winning dishes included an herb-encrusted sea bass, stuffed chicken breast and an almond mousse.
"We were the first team to start off, so we had at least 20 chefs, professional chefs, watching us – just us," said Waubonsie Valley senior Kristy Fogle. "It was kind of intimidating."
Assistant Captain Julio Valeriano said the team has come a long way.
"At first, we didn't really talk to anyone, there were so many arguments," he said. "During our first through third run-throughs, we didn't talk to each other."
Captain and Glenbard West senior Courtney O'Neal said the team had to make an effort to come together over the last several months to achieve the family atmosphere they have now.
"We fought at first," O'Neal said. "It's definitely so much better. We did more team bonding things, like hanging out and just cooking and seeing what other people were doing."
Alternate Jake Stellmach, a senior at Metea Valley, said the group even spent the night together before the competition.
"We spend more time here than we do at home," Hoare said.
The team's coaches, chefs Kyle Neuner and Matt Barker, said this year's competitors embraced the challenge before them with the support of each other and past team members.
"It's something that's been built over time. Last year's winners were in here helping the students throughout the process," Barker said. "I think that we build a culture, we build a family."
Neuner himself is a former competitor and student of Barker's, he said. He said he has heard judges say they know when the center brings its food out because of the commitment to detail and skill.
"The students know the expectation, they accept it," Barker said. "We are here to learn, we want to succeed, and if we don't win, it's okay, but just realize we are going to put in the effort to be set up to succeed – whether that means wins or not."
The team's next competition is at the National ProStart Invitational, May 3 to 5 in Minneapolis, Minn.
The winning dishes
Appetizer: Herb-crusted sea bass, melted leaks, gnocchi in an herb brothEntree: Chicken breast stuffed with chicken thigh sausage, breaded and pan-fried over homemade tomato sauce, polenta and vegetablesDessert: Almond mousse, poached apples, apple donut, cranberry and caramel sauce
Meet the team
Kristy Fogle-Senior at Waubonsie Valley-From Aurora-Dessert specialist-Loves baking and frosting cakes-Hopes to attend Johnson & Wales University and study baking and pastry
Mary Hoare-Junior at Wheaton North-From Wheaton-Prepared the chicken, plated, supported other cooks-Hopes to attend Lexington College and major in hotel and restaurant management and minor in pastry
Sara Knupp-Junior at Wheaton Warrenville South-From Warrenville-Helped streamline cooking process, including timing during practice-Hopes to get a bachelor's degree and open a restaurant, staying in the competitive cooking scene
Courtney O'Neal-Senior at Glenbard West-From Glen Ellyn-Second year in program-Captain, main cook during competition-Enjoys cooking soups and sauces, working without a recipe-Hopes to attend Johnson & Wales University or Kendall College
Jake Stellmach-Senior at Metea Valley-From Aurora-Substitute during competition, learning each job in the kitchen-Loves baking, hopes to open a bakery one day
Julio Valeriano-Senior at Fenton High School-From Bensenville-Assistant captain, second year in program-Knife work, produce prep, plating-Favorite dish to cook is grilled chicken caprese sandwich with homemade pesto-Plans to work after graduation, attend community college and go to Kendall College
Coaches-Chef Kyle Neuner-Chef Matt Barker-Culinary Program Coordinator Faith Jennetta
For the love of food
"I've loved cooking ever since I was a little kid. I remember when I was 6 years old, I was making a little sandwich cookies, you know, cheese and little bits of crackers and everything, and I put it in the microwave for too long. The whole house was filled with smoke, the fire alarms went off, the fire fighters came ... I cried. I didn't cry because of the smoke, I cried because my cookies didn't come out the way I wanted them to come out."– Julio Valeriano
"I love all the creative possibilities. My mind is just constantly running ... Now I've had jobs in the food industry, and I know it's just a fit, you know? When you find that one thing."– Courtney O'Neal
"I've wanted to do this program since I was in sixth grade, literally. It's just always been a part of my plan ... I'm the seventh of nine kids, and I only have two sisters and neither one of them are kind of the homey type. So that's just always what I've done – the person who acts as the second mom."– Mary Hoare
"Up until I think freshman year, I didn't know you could cook for a job and actually do that, and that's when I kind of started leaning off of the other things I wanted to do in life and getting into the culinary thing, learning about it."– Sara Knupp