A class at Pewaukee High School teaches cooking as part of a family and consumer education curriculum, but goes one step further than teaching students to prepare run-of-the-mill meals. Instead, this class prepares students to compete at cooking.
Led by Artisan 179 executive chef Richard Sweed and Pewaukee High School teacher Ryan Demers, the class prepares students for the Wisconsin ProStart National Restaurant Education Foundation Culinary Competition. It will take place March 14 in Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Center. The winner will go on to the national competition in Charleston, South Carolina, April 28-30.
The competitive cooking team comprises members of Demers' ProStart class. The idea came about two years ago. Demers had previous experience as a general manager of Water Street Brewery's downtown Milwaukee and Delafield locations. He had been assisting in teaching the ProStart class in 2014-15, and took over the class for 2015-16 when he got in contact with Sweed. Demers thought he had gotten in over his head trying to teach it on his own.
"We sat down and talked, and (Sweed) said he'd love to come in. So he came in last year and helped our competition team, and said he'd come back this year, which is awesome," Demers said.
Sweed was excited about the opportunity.
"A lot of these classes, maybe nobody wants to be a chef, but maybe somebody does," Sweed said. "To give back that time is important to me. If the chefs I worked with didn't give me the time, I wouldn't have gotten where I am. It's important for me to be a part of that. Plus, as an independent restaurant, we're a community-based restaurant. We want to do stuff in our local community, and when Mr. Demers came up to me and asked, I was excited to do it."
Teams can earn a maximum of 100 points in the competition. They consist of five people, including a captain. Each team has to make two three-course meals, each consisting of a starter (soup, salad or appetizer); an entree, consisting of a center-of-plate item, an accompanying vegetable or starch and a sauce; followed by a dessert.
One meal is evaluated by the judges for taste and presentation, and another is used for display. Teams must employ at least two cooking methods: poach, shallow poach, braise, pan fry, steam and/or saute. Educators and mentors may not help teams during the competition, but can help in preparation. The educators and mentors also can't develop the menu; their expertise is limited to menu suggestions and technique advice.
This year, Sweed said, the class wanted to do a lamb dish for the entree. The class came up with cumin lamb. The class also has a chicken yakitori dish for a starter and crepes for dessert. He said he's seen a lot of progress in his team, as he and Demers challenge the kids with a difficult menu.
They know there are a lot of teams at the competition, they said, so they want their students to bring the best possible dishes. It's also about making sure they all know each other's roles, Sweed said.
"It's great to see them from our first couple weeks, where it's hard even getting an idea on paper on where to start, to be able to put out these three dishes, and plate it and look great," Sweed said.
One of the team's members, senior Chanse Steinert, brings a unique perspective to the team. Her dad is a chef at the Bartolotta Restaurants and the executive chef at Kohl's Corporate Office in Menomonee Falls.
"Since I was little, I was cooking with my dad, so I've always enjoyed cooking," she said.
She added, "I've definitely learned a lot about management in this class. It doesn't seem like you would ... how to manage a restaurant and keep your chefs in order and everything. It gets difficult, but what Mr. Demers is teaching us is a lot easier."
Having Sweed offer his expertise helps as well.
"He's taught us a lot of cool techniques with our cooking skills that will go a long way with our competition and throughout life," Steinert said.