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Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014

Olathe culinary students once again prepare for national competition

Special to The Star

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They spend six hours every day after school preparing the exact same meal.

But it’s never boring, the teenagers insist.

Donning black caps and professional white uniforms Wednesday afternoon, the culinary students meticulously cut chicken and chopped vegetables in a makeshift cooking station set up in an empty hallway of Olathe North High School. Their instructor paced back and forth, quietly examining the work. Sometimes students walking by would stop in their tracks and watch curiously.

The five students from the Olathe School District’s culinary program kept their eyes on their work, barely looking up.

After all, their future depends on being precise and punctual.

The students — called Team Kansas — will be representing the state in the prestigious ProStart National Invitational on May 3 through 5 in Minneapolis. The competition, hosted by the National Restaurant Association, paves the way for full-ride scholarships to some of the best culinary institutes in the world.

This month marked the ninth year in a row that a team from Olathe’s culinary program has won first place at the state level of the competition and moved on to the nationals.

Team Kansas this year consists of Jordan Kaemmer and Jose Hernandez of Olathe North, Kaitlin Head of Blue Valley Northwest, Melinda Hrdy of Olathe South and Rachel Cormeny of Olathe East.

In 2010 and 2012, Olathe claimed first place at the national competition.

Mike Chrostowski, the culinary instructor for the program, hopes to repeat that triumph this spring.

“I’m very proud of these kids and I brag about them constantly,” he said. “Early on, a lot of people underestimated Kansas because we’re not really known as a culinary state, but the word has gotten out now and we’re taken seriously.”

At the competition, the kids will be judged on cutting a chicken into eight pieces, creating a three-course meal in an hour, and knife skills. Everything from cleanliness to creativity counts.

“This competition is more than just cooking,” said Hrdy, a junior. “It’s a lot more difficult than people think because you have to make the food look beautiful while also making sure it tastes good. You have to be extremely precise in a fast-paced environment.”

The hundreds of hours of hard work will pay off in the future, said Cormeny, who is also a junior. Most of the students in Olathe’s culinary program hope to have a career in the industry. Placing well in the national competition can speed up that goal if it catches the eye of the right culinary institute, she said.

Chrostowski agrees.

He still keeps in touch with many of his former students, several of whom did well in the national competition over the past decade.

Many of them now work in fine restaurants around the country. Some are managers, some are chefs.

“These students are not going to walk out of here and immediately become chefs because they haven’t earned that right yet,” Chrostowski said. “But everything we teach them sends them off to the races.”

He added that Olathe’s culinary program — which has been around for 15 years and is headquartered at Olathe North — is an outlet for kids who may otherwise not have direction.

“They find something they’re passionate about, they find their niche,” he said. “And once that happens, it makes them want to succeed in other classes as well. I’ve seen my students’ grades go up because they find motivation here.”

That enthusiasm leads students to drive to Olathe North after school every day to practice their skills.

“I’m really excited for the national competition but I’m also very nervous,” Head, a junior, admitted with a laugh. “It’s awesome to know this could help me have a culinary career in the future.”

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