DEER LODGE — A team of Drummond High School students gave 170 Deer Lodge residents a sampling of their culinary excellence on Saturday.
And it’s that finely honed cooking ability they’ll put to the test in a national competition in South Carolina April 27 through May 2.
The school’s Advanced Culinary Arts students won the state ProStart championship in February. They spent much of Saturday at the Elks Lodge preparing the dinner — featuring beef top sirloin steak with crispy onion strings and other selections — as one of their fundraisers to enable them to compete against 49 other schools at the National ProStart Invitational in North Charleston, South Carolina.
The students, Emilee Steinberg, Kolter Clute, Ryan Hilmo, Erika Pfendler, Leroy Davis, and Shiloh Rainey, will be accompanied by their family, consumer, and science instructor Tina Wetsch and mentor chef Brent Parker. The students will demonstrate their culinary knowledge, skills, and creative abilities by preparing a “unique” three-course meal in 60 minutes. (See info box for the menu.) The judges are from the food service industry and post-secondary schools.
Connie Jones, retired teacher, started the ProStart curriculum in 2011 — when it was one of three programs in the state. Drummond students have competed each year, winning second last year, and this year took home the championship title and culinary school scholarships.
Chef Lee Johnson, program director for the Montana Restaurant Association Education Foundation, the program sponsor, said ProStart began 20 years ago on the national level and is now an international program.
“It’s really rewarding for the Drummond kids, who had the largest audience of supporters at state, to finally get to the finish line. They were up against tough competition from Bozeman, and Belgrade, who has the preeminent program in the state. And they beat them by a solid margin. These kids work so hard and have the right attitude. I’m very happy for them.”
Preparations for competition began soon after school started in the fall, with the advanced culinary students spending the first period of each school day with mentor Chef Brent Parker at his restaurant learning new skills.
“He donates all of his time,” Wetsch said. “He also helps with ordering, but the school pays for the food and equipment.”
Chef Parker, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, worked in several restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, most recently as the executive chef at the five-star Portofino Italian and Mediterranean restaurant.
Working in four- and five-star restaurants is demanding, Parker said. He and his wife Jennifer moved to Montana once their kids were grown. He worked for the Montana Department of Transportation for a time and volunteered at the school. But in 2011, he and his wife opened Parker’s Restaurant in the heart of town.
Still, he finds time to mentor.
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Drummond teams have competed each year in ProStart, and some students have gone on to cook professionally, Parker said.
“I’m very optimistic our students will do well at nationals even though there will be strong competition against schools where the students are on a culinary career path,” he said. “The pressure is off after the state competition, and Tina does a fantastic job seeing that the kids have all the t's crossed and i's dotted."
“When Tina came on, the ProStart program took off. She started with three or four students and now has 20 to 25 kids in the two culinary classes,” he said.
The culinary program opens avenues to kids who are not athletes, Parker said, and has motivated them to raise their grades.
“Tourism is Montana’s second most important industry. Visitors need to eat and we need to have chefs in Montana who are worth their salt to keep the tourism industry strong,” Parker said.
Since winning the state competition, the students have worked to raised $11,000 needed to make the trip.
“People have been incredibly generous,” Wetsch said. “We have received many donations from our area, and all across the state and the nation from people who have a connection to Drummond.”
Mayor Gail Leeper is a substitute teacher for Wetsch and volunteers in the school greenhouse where she raises herbs for the culinary classes.
“Like any other small community, our school is the hub,” Leeper said. “We are so proud that our kids are well-rounded and the notoriety our town receives whether it is with football, science and now culinary champions.”
The logistics have been complicated, Wetsch admitted. The only items provided at the competition site will be two eight-foot tables and two butane camp stoves. The team must bring all of their equipment — knives, cutting boards, pots, plates, etc. — as well as all the primary ingredients for their meal.
A friend helped make arrangements for shipping the equipment by UPS to the home of her friend in South Carolina so they won’t have to pay a storage fee at the hotel. The students will take the meat and other major ingredients with them on the plane.
“I’m thrilled with the support we’ve received,” Wetsch said. “The kids worked really hard, and this will be a great experience for them. They will be meeting kids doing the same things. We will have a little time for sightseeing, and I’m hoping we can get a tour of a culinary school while there.”