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Gaylord High School students train hard for culinary competition

Culinary arts instructor Laura Korff shows student Laurel Milme how to work a piece of equipment in Gaylord High School on March 1, 2023.
Michael Livingston
IPR News
Culinary arts instructor Laura Korff shows student Laurel Milme how to work a piece of equipment in Gaylord High School on March 1, 2023. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

For Gaylord High School students enrolled in culinary arts, their classroom is sweltering from hot ovens, stocked with all kinds of ingredients and the smell of fresh-baked sweets.

It’s where, for the past several months, students have been gearing up for another go at the ProStart Culinary Competition.

They seem to work with the speed and precision of professional chefs – carefully measuring ingredients, moving from station to station, taste-testing as they go.

It’s all necessary for when they have their skills tested March 5 at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron. This year, the junior chefs have first place on their minds.

Culinary Arts instructor Laura Korff said the kitchen has lately been a mixture of nervousness, anxiety and excitement. Students will take part in a number of different contests to determine which school takes first place.

“In one competition, students are required to create a three course meal. They have to have a starter, an entree and a dessert,” Korff said. “They have to bring all their own equipment, they have to bring all their own food, they are not allowed to use anything electronic. They're only allowed to use two butane burners to cook with.”

The judges critique is mainly based on speed, creativity and food safety. However, cost effectiveness, teamwork and communication are important factors.

But this isn’t Gaylord’s first time competing in the ProStart contest. Last year, the team finished in third place — the best they’ve ever done in the program’s history.

Maddie Sides was there. She’s been in the program for three years now – and she’s hoping for the top spot before she graduates.

“I'm in four competitions,” Sides said. “So, I'm just really excited to challenge myself.”

Sides has a dream of opening her own farm-to-table restaurant after she graduates. She said that her time in the classroom has given her some of the tools to make that dream come true.

If she and the rest of her team take first place in Port Huron, they'll earn a slot at the National ProStart Invitational held in Washington, D.C., this May.

But even if they don’t win, students say the experiences they’ve gained through Korff’s instruction are well worth it.

For student Ezra Spychalski, who wants to go into engineering, cooking is almost like being a scientist in a lab. Today, he’s experimenting with making a foam out of whey, vinegar and basil.

“The hard part is trying to keep it foaming so it doesn’t just turn into a puddle on the plate,” he said.

Spychalski is competing in both the main team event and a ServSafe Knowledge Bowl, which will test contestants on their knowledge of food safety.

For Laurel Milme, who’s entered into the cake decorating contest, cooking brings her back to her favorite parts of being a kid.

“I grew up homeschooled. So I had a lot of free time on my hands. My grandma would cook with me a lot,” she said. It's just something special to me that I did as a kid. And that she was so passionate about.”

Students Emma Donajkowski, Emma Topp and Ryder Winiger are also competing with their teammates in various events.

Even with multiple snow days cutting into practice and some steep competition, Korff said she’s confident her student’s passion will shine through this weekend.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.