Anna Popnikolova, Assistant Editor-in-chief
The National Restaurant Association holds a ProStart culinary competition for high schools all across the country, every year. With more than 130,000 student participants and 1,700 schools involved, this competition has been an important part of many culinary careers for students hoping to go into culinary arts. Nantucket High School has been participating in this competition for several years, and has a history of successful teams.
The team every year is led by Chef Tom Proch, the nutrition and culinary teacher at Nantucket High School. “We form a team of four… and we will form a menu, which is one appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Once we decide what it is we’re actually going to go with, we start practicing.” The team has been meeting to work together on planning their menu.
“Mostly the culinary team has been in the brainstorming process for the majority of the meetings,” said Evan Keeler, Junior, one of the members of this year’s team. “Since the meetings have been once a week while we are brainstorming, we haven’t had a lot of direct time for cooking, but in this last week’s meeting, Proch did do a demonstration for us on what kind of dessert the judges would be looking for.”
The competition itself, taking place at Gillette Stadium on March 22nd, 2022, is 60 minutes from start to finish, and during that time, “you have to make two [appetizers], two entrees, and two desserts. One goes on display for people to see, the other one gets brought to the judges, who will look at it, and will judge you on presentation, taste, all sorts of things.” Chef Proch explained.
The judging process in the competition, however, begins before competitors even pick up their knives, and before the judges even try their meals. “They judge you as you start coming through the door. How you carry yourself, cleanliness, how you’re dressed, your knife skills, your organizational skills. It’s pretty… stringent.” The competition does not only serve as a culinary, but also business competition, and high school students are assessed by their ability to carry themselves in a culinary environment, and how well they’ll perform in a real restaurant kitchen, under pressure.
Proch is not worried about the team’s performance, “We always do well, and once we get our menu together, which we are just starting to do, we will practice after school every day. We’ll be well prepared by March 22nd.” Proch’s involvement in the ProStart Culinary Competition has had a long history of successes.
“The first year I was here, we won the state and went on to the nationals… and we came in 14th, out of 48 different schools, so it was amazing,” Proch explained. “And I really feel like we have a good chance this year, I’ve got some great kids.”
The team for the 2021-2022 competitive year is made up of Evan Keeler, Jacob Santikulanont, Guy On-In, Jackson Turner, Abby Mason, and Sofia Deras. This lineup is exciting for Proch: “that’s the most kids I’ve ever had try out for the team, so I’m psyched about it. And, as we start practicing, we’re going to figure out who does what… This person kinda leans towards desserts, so we’ll do that… it’s just how we all fall into place. But that’s why we practice, practice, practice.”
The group has been working together and forming a team community. These students work closely together for an extended period of practice and prep time, and are placed in stressful situations where everyone depends on the other to be triumphant and successful in the competition. The team environment that has been created, to the members, feels inclusive and respectful for everyone involved.
Keeler remarked on his experience as a group member, “I feel like since the team is very small in comparison to other extracurricular activities, my individual opinion has been valued much more. I feel as though I am a direct factor in what my team will be doing for the competition, and I believe my fellow teammates feel the same way.”
Chef Proch is confident in the group’s abilities and their team spirit, as well as the culinary environment of NHS this year as a whole. Many participating students in his culinary course, as well as the interested students outside of the culinary elective, have shown strong interest and skill in culinary arts. “I feel great about this year’s team, as well as just culinary in general. I’ve got so many kids who actually want to go into the field, and already have a cooking knowledge this year. So, I’m thrilled about it.”
Proch has been working on helping his culinary students develop their skills, connections and experience for culinary work in the future and potential careers in the field. “I’ve lined up a couple kids with work already.” One of the members of the team, Keeler, worked for Nantucket Proprietor’s Bar & Table over a weekend, for cooking experience. The results of this year’s competitions remains to be seen, but the future for culinary arts on Nantucket seems bright, with so many young and involved people, who show promise in their fields and careers.