Members of the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team prepare their three-course meal during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

Members of the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team prepare their three-course meal during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

TMHS culinary arts team serves a meal of kings at national competition

Five students who won state competition bring Alaskan crab and salmon to “Top Chef”-style event.

They had $900 of Alaskan king crab, two butane burners, no electricity or running water, and an hour to prepare a gourmet three-course meal as video camera operators and judges constantly intruded on their space.

The five students on Thunder Mountain High School’s culinary arts team, in addition to making a crab cake appetizer, were also serving an entree of Alaska white king salmon and a mango tapioca pudding in a cookie cup for dessert — with no conventional oven to bake the cookies. Meanwhile several of the 47 other teams from schools across the country in the competition were going through the same challenge with their own menus in surrounding spaces in a scene straight from any number of reality TV cooking shows.

Kaeden Quinto and Calvin Knapp carry ingredients to the Thunder Mountain High School culinary art team’s space, which had only two butane burners for cooking, at the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

Kaeden Quinto and Calvin Knapp carry ingredients to the Thunder Mountain High School culinary art team’s space, which had only two butane burners for cooking, at the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

The students — Lacie Gehring, Hannah Watts, Lauren Stichert, Kaeden Quinto and Calvin Knapp — along with their coach Jay Watts were among the 48 Culinary Competition teams at the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. They qualified for the event by winning the culinary category in the two-day Alaska ProStart Invitational 2024 in Anchorage in early February that featured nine teams from seven schools.

The TMHS team didn’t end up being the top chefs at the national event, although Gehring said their royal menu did make a splash with the judges.

“We were the only team that brought fresh crab,” she said. “And so we pulled it out from the cooler and we picked it on the table, and it was just insane. All the judges were like ‘wow.’ They were so impressed how we’re just picking fresh crab on the table right now.”

Getting the crab and salmon across the country in prime culinary condition was among the major concerns and challenges, since such ingredients weren’t likely to be available at the Baltimore markets within reach where most of the other teams appeared to be doing their shopping, Gehring said.

Hannah Watts and Lauren Stichert help prepare a three-course meal for the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

Hannah Watts and Lauren Stichert help prepare a three-course meal for the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Rebecca Giedosh-Ruge)

Gehring was the team’s manager, meaning she was not allowed to cook and had to stay on the outside of a 10-foot square where the rest of the team was working, instead managing their time.

“I had to stay back and talk to everybody from the other side of the table,” she said. “So I prepared the questions, and wrote down all of our tips and tricks so I could remind everybody of their steps.”

Most of the students said they didn’t have any family or other strong ties to restaurant cooking, although Hannah Watts said her dad is a caterer who cooks for events such as weddings and at one point operated a food stand.

“I basically kind of grew up in the kitchen and was around that with him,” she said. “It was really fun. I like cooking with my grandma. That’s something we always did when I was younger. And so I already had my foot in the door with all this stuff, so it wasn’t like brand new.”

Her dad also helped the team formulate their dishes before they went to the state competition, Gehring said.

The Alaskan king crab cake appetizer prepared by the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Jay Watts)

The Alaskan king crab cake appetizer prepared by the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team during the National ProStart Invitational in Baltimore on April 26-28. (Photo by Jay Watts)

Jay Watts, a teacher at TMHS, said this is his first year as the school’s culinary coach, so knowing what to do during competitions was a new experience for everyone.

“I got lucky because the five of them just were incredibly hard-working kids and they were willing to put in the time on the weekends,” he said. “And we didn’t expect to win the state competition up there. We were going up against the tech schools there that have their kids like three hours a day to cook. So we were actually a little shocked that we won the state.”

Making the national competition somewhat easier was the students prepared the same menu as the state event, which is common, Jay Watts said. But in addition to the limits such as the fickle butane burners there was the big-stage element due to the judges and cameras.

“It really is like those cooking shows that you’re seeing on TV,” he said. “There’s camera big cameras right in their faces. There’s like nine teams going at one time, and then they bring entourages that are yelling and screaming. So the pressure happens. So next year I’ll put them under those sorts of pressures.”

Gehring said the judges appeared to be deliberately trying to rattle the students with unusual questions and reactions. Judges would ask where the crab was sourced from — a Sysco operator in Alaska donated it to the team since ingredients had to come from a commercial supplier, although the team practiced extensively with freshly caught crabs from a TMHS teacher — even though such information was provided ahead of time.

“They were like ‘OK’ and then they would write it down, and you’d be like ‘what did I do wrong?’ or something, and then they’d make faces or do something to throw you off, which I think was pretty funny,” Gehring said.

But despite the big stage presence of the event there was also a definite element of roughing it to get certain tasks accomplished.

“We had a campfire oven, one of the ones you bring like on a camping trip, and we had to assemble it and put it on top of the butane stove,” Gehring said.

Knapp, who had the baking duties, said an additional complication was the ovens and burners he worked with at state and during rehearsals weren’t the same ones used during the competition.

“Every oven is different,” he said. “We went to three different ovens to find one that worked and it was just it was difficult to find the right temperature (with the burners).”

Four of the five members of the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team — Kaeden Quinto, Lacie Gehring, Hannah Watts and Calvin Knapp — and their coach Jay Watts accept a legislative citation from Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, and Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in the kitchen classroom at TMHS on Thursday. Not pictured among the team members is Lauren Stichert. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Four of the five members of the Thunder Mountain High School culinary arts team — Kaeden Quinto, Lacie Gehring, Hannah Watts and Calvin Knapp — and their coach Jay Watts accept a legislative citation from Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, and Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in the kitchen classroom at TMHS on Thursday. Not pictured among the team members is Lauren Stichert. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The team spent about a week on the East Coast, during which they had time to try both some fine dining as well as unfamiliar Afghani cuisine at Baltimore restaurants, the students said. They also spent a day in Washington, D.C., where in addition to seeing the usual monumental sights made sure to stop at a Shake Shack.

The five students and their coach were presented Thursday with a citation for their accomplishment from Juneau’s legislative delegation, with state Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Rep. Andi Story visiting the school to pay tribute. Also at the national event from Alaska was Delta High School as one of the 48 Restaurant Management Competition teams after winning that category at the state level.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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