Last week, high school students at the Waldo County Technical Center concentrated on chopping onions and making salad as if something important was at stake.

It was.

The team of culinary students from the Waldo school was gearing up for a fast-paced cooking competition later this month that’s part of the ProStart curriculum, designed to give culinary students practical skills and a taste of what it’s like to work in the restaurant industry.

Last year, the Waldo County students tied for last place, and they are hungry to improve.

“It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, but it’s a lot of fun,” Hannah “Panda” Paige, 16, of Searsport said as she deftly chopped vegetables at her cooking station. “I did learn a lot from last year’s competition.”

That’s the goal, according to Will Beriau, the former culinary director at Southern Maine Community College and the Maine facilitator for ProStart. The nationwide program is run and partially funded by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

“I honestly believe that the curriculum offers a way of life, a career, a lifestyle of excitement, commitment and focus into an absolutely wonderful industry,” Beriau said. “My gosh, if you’ve got those skills and a good attitude, you can go very far, very fast.”

During the competition, scheduled for Feb. 17 in Portland, the five teams of high school students have exactly one hour to prepare an upscale, fine dining three-course meal using just two hot plates and their ingenuity. They’ve already chosen their menus and have been practicing to make sure they can complete it when the pressure is on.

Up in Lincoln, where the Northern Penobscot Tech Region III culinary arts students are the defending champions, the preparation is intense. Winners get bragging rights, but all participants get the chance to meet and network with local chefs.

“We have a competitive cooking team. Students try out to be on the team, and then we practice,” culinary arts instructor Herman Ammerman said. “I’m absolutely proud of our students. They work extremely hard.”

He didn’t want to spill the beans on this year’s menu, but in past competitions, his students have prepared such delicacies as pan-seared scallops, Maine lobster cake, rack of lamb, beef tenderloin and more. During the competition, they receive feedback from and are judged by professional chefs, which is also important, he said.

“Coming from a place like Lincoln, for my students, a big night out might be the Olive Garden or Applebee’s,” Ammerman said. “This gives them a buy-in. It’s an opportunity for them to shove their way into the world of food … They can see so many different opportunities that exist, for hospitality, tourism and culinary arts.”

The ProStart curriculum is intended to help provide a capable, motivated workforce for an industry that often scrambles to get enough good workers.

“My day-to-day struggle is to promote the industry, promote the work and promote our state,” Ammerman said. “We hope there’s lots of jobs for my kids. In the restaurant industry, you can start at the bottom, and it’s one of the last industries where you can work your way up.”

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