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Two teams of Blue Hills Culinary Arts students compete at Massachusetts ProStart Invitational at Gillette Stadium

In photo, left to right - Daniel Hawkes, Lydianna Ginarte, Melissa Alphonse, Elaina Hawkes, Natalie Minasi, Nyah Thomas, Antoine Pierre, Sarah Saddler, and Isabella Luongo. Photo courtesy Richard Spada

By Judy Bass 

FOXBORO – The Culinary Arts students at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton - led by their dedicated, creative instructors - are always embarking on new ventures intended to broaden and perfect their skills, enhance their self-assurance, and put them the forefront of the next generation of food industry professionals.

On February 12, 2019, some of these industrious young men and women added another milestone to their already impressive list of accomplishments when two teams of Blue Hills Culinary Arts students competed for the first time at the 12th Annual Massachusetts ProStart Invitational at the Putnam Club at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation and designed to help students cultivate their cooking and managerial ability, this event featured students from 13 local high schools including Blue Hills who vied for scholarships and a chance to go on to the next phase of the competition, the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C. in May.

The judges included former New England Patriots defensive lineman Jarvis Green, owner of Oceans 97, and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) news anchor Maria Stephanos.

According to the chooserestaurants.org web site, “ProStart® is a career and technical education program that unites the food service industry and the classroom to teach high school students culinary skills and restaurant management principles, as well as employability skills such as communication, teamwork, professionalism and time management. The National Restaurant Educational Foundation hosts competitions at the state level culminating in the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C.”

There were two tracks to the competition – culinary and management. The Blue HiIls students who attended were the culinary team of Nyah Thomas (Randolph), Isabella Luongo (Braintree), Sarah Saddler (Randolph) and Daniel Hawkes (Braintree). The management team was comprised of Lydianna Ginarte (Randolph), Melissa Alphonse (Randolph), Natalie Minasi (Holbrook), Antoine Pierre (Milton) and Elaina Hawkes (Braintree).

Accompanying them were Principal Jill Rossetti, Vocational Director Michelle Sylvia, Lead Culinary Arts instructor Richard Spada and Culinary Arts instructor Linda Varraso.

The students began prepping and honing their know-how long before the competition started. There had been numerous after-school practice sessions at Blue Hills, including two full run-throughs. The students knew that what they would be expected to do at Gillette would not be a breeze and they wanted to excel.

According to Mr. Spada, it was an exciting albeit hectic day from the very start. “We arrived at Gillette Stadium at 7:30 a.m.  The first part of the competition for the culinary team was having our product checked in by the chefs. All the culinary teams competed in waves beginning every 20 minutes.  Our team wasn't scheduled to start until 9:20 a.m., so we had some time to look around the competition floor and observe some teams at the start of their competition.  Once the culinary competition began for our students, they had 20 minutes to set up their station and then one hour to cook their meals. This was followed by 20 minutes for cleaning their station.  Then they met the judges and got feedback from them.  Finally they had lunch, a Q&A session with [New England Patriots player] Matthew Slater, then the awards ceremony was held.”

“The culinary students had one hour to execute a three-course meal consisting of a starter, an entree with sides, and dessert.  They planned the menu ahead of time and had to bring all equipment and food needed to the competition.  They were evaluated on sanitation, taste, presentation, teamwork, menu planning, time management and safety. They had to complete their plates no sooner than 57 minutes into the competition and no later than 60 minutes. They finished right on time at 58:30.”  

The management team from Blue Hills was put through its paces, too. Their task, as described in the official rules, was to “demonstrate their knowledge of the restaurant and food service industry by developing a new restaurant concept and presenting to a panel of judges at a simulated business exposition. The teams will also submit a written proposal for review and will present their concepts to various groups of judges through verbal presentations, question and answer periods, and posters.”

Ms. Varraso said the management competitors were ready for the task at hand by the time they arrived at Gillette. “They practiced a great deal before the competition. We had several sessions leading up to the event where we brainstormed, discussed and crafted responses to sample questions the judges might ask and developed short two to three minute presentations on their individual sections of the project.  Additional practice was done by the members on their own time as well.”

Elaina Hawkes, a sophomore from Braintree who competed on the management team, said, “It was really interesting figuring out what type of restaurant we wanted to create and the many different ways we could expand on that small idea to fit into ProStart guidelines. I really learned about group and team skills. I’m the type of person who would rather do a project by myself but this taught me to listen to others’ ideas and [figure out] what we can do to make them better. We formed a bond that we didn’t have before. I loved making new friends and building that team bond with a goal that was amazing.”

Although only the gold medalists will advance to the next round in Washington, the day was a resounding success for the Blue Hills students.

Ms. Varraso indicated her tremendous pride in the students’ performance that day. “They did very well.  They took on the challenge, dedicated a great deal of their own time to meet each week after school and completed much of their work outside of school hours. Ultimately, they put together a great document that I was proud to submit on their behalf.  They used a great deal of what they learned at Blue Hills including topics such as menu costing, menu design and descriptions, kitchen operations and marketing.”

Mr. Spada was equally pleased with how the teams fared. The Blue Hills culinary team placed fourth out of 13 teams and the school’s management team placed fifth. “Our culinary team won most original dish for their squid ink pasta with shrimp and tomatoes. Since that was Daniel Hawkes’ dish, he accepted the award.”

He continued, “Considering that this was our first year competing, and both the instructors and students didn't really know what to expect, they did a fantastic job.  They handled the pressure of the situation well. They clearly showcased the skills they have learned at Blue Hills.”

“I am thrilled that our Ms. Varraso and Mr. Spada brought the first teams to compete,” said Principal Rossetti. “It was an amazing experience for our teachers, students, and supportive parents. Our students appeared calm and confident during the competition. It was very nice to see them mastering cooking and restaurant management skills while their teachers and parents silently rooted from the sidelines. They also received direct feedback from celebrity judges and to add a little fun they took selfies with Matthew Slater! Looking forward to next year!”

Perhaps the most heartfelt summary of the whole experience came from junior Sarah Saddler, who was on the culinary team. She loves cooking and baking and hopes to attend Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., after graduating from Blue Hills.

Miss Saddler said, “The feeling that you get from ProStart is when you love something so much and you don't want to let go of it. I really loved it. There were many benefits involved in going to this competition. It wasn't all about winning and getting a reward for it. I learned that I can do anything that I want in this world if I push myself hard and have faith.”





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