State champs: Conway culinary team dishes up success

Sonja Keith
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Members of the state championship Conway High School Culinary Arts Team with the first place award: Gracie Childress (from left), Lauren Murphy, Henley Masters and Triston Hollomon with the first place silver tray. Not pictured: Hannah Bramlett. (Mike Kemp photo)

by Sonja J. Keith

A five-member team of Conway High School students enjoyed a heaping helping of success at the Prostart State Competition.

The team won the state championship and was headed at press time to Washington, D.C., to compete at the National ProStart Competition.

Senior students Hannah Bramlett, Gracie Childress, Triston Hollomon, Henley Masters and Lauren Murphy make up the team, which placed first in the ProStart State Culinary Competition held at the Culinary School in Little Rock. 

The culinary competition highlights each team’s creative abilities through the preparation of a three-course meal in 60 minutes. The team only uses two butane burners for the competition and has no access to running water or electricity. Students are evaluated on taste, skill, teamwork, safety and sanitation. 

The team’s starter was Cucumber-Wrapped Asian Slaw over Sushi Rice, Asian Aioli, Butter Poached Shrimp, Lotus Chips and Avocado. For the entrée, the students made Black Tea Smoked Duck with Blood Orange Agrodolce, Spicy Pickled Daikon and Asian Microgreens. For dessert, the team made a Coconut Ginger Mousse, Fresh Mango with Sesame Nougatine, Matcha Cake and Raspberry Coulis. (See Pages 50-51 for the recipes.)

This is the sixth CHS team to win the state title. Silver platters awarded each year are displayed on the wall in the culinary arts department in the Conway High Careers Center.

Conway competed against seven other teams during the state competition. At the national level, there are about 50 teams.

Conway High culinary arts instructor Jennifer Park said the team has worked year-long to identify and perfect the recipes for competition. She encourages the students to work backward during the process, deciding first what flavors they want to achieve and then identifying how to achieve them. “They do a lot of trial and error until they figure it out,” she said.

In addition to creating the recipes and executing them, the students have to identify the costs involved with the dishes, which utilizes skills from their other core classes.

With three courses to prepare in only 60 minutes, the team works together to identify all the tasks for each dish and who is responsible for each. “They have it down minute by minute what every person is doing,” said Park, adding that Hannah serves as the team manager and keeps the members on track.

“It goes by faster than you think,” said Lauren of the time limit.

The team has logged many hours in practice prior to competition. Park added that there are 10 students in the culinary class with the team and they have helped troubleshoot throughout the process. 

Lauren said the culinary competition has taught her the importance of dedication and commitment. She plans to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is considering a major in international business. “We’ve put in a lot of time and effort,” she said.

Triston plans to use the skills he learned in culinary classes to one day open his own business. He will be attending Pulaski Technical College for its culinary program and the University of Central Arkansas to pursue a business degree. 

Triston said the team initially considered making a simple chicken dish for competition. Henley added that was “too simple.” 

Lauren credits their teacher for helping them during the process. “She (Park) taught us so much.”

“We were very well prepared going into our state competition,” said Henley.

Park pointed out that she stressed “details matter” throughout the process. 

While at the National ProStart Invitational (NPSI), Park will be recognized as ProStart Educator of the Year by the Arkansas Hospitality Association. She also is a finalist for the National Educator of Excellence Awards (NEEA) sponsored by Golden Corral. 

The state award, for outstanding achievement in high school culinary and restaurant management education, is given to only one teacher in Arkansas. “Jennifer is an outstanding teacher and goes beyond the classroom to help students succeed,” said Montine McNulty, CEO of the Arkansas Hospitality Association. “Mrs. Park guides her students to work together and helps them develop the skills and attitude important for business success. She has high expectations and her students leave her class prepared for college as well as the industry.”

Park, who started the Conway High culinary arts program in 2012, has 54 students participating in ProStart.

ProStart is a nationwide high school program that unites classroom and industry to develop the talent of tomorrow’s workforce. It reaches nearly 150,000 students in more than 1,500 high schools across 50 states. More than 400 ProStart students and educators from across the country will showcase their culinary and restaurant management skills in the live-action national competition for more than $200,000 in scholarships.

“We are going to make Arkansas look great,” Park said of the CHS team. “That’s our goal.”