WALDO, Maine — When the team of three high school senior girls from the Waldo County Technical Center competed two weeks ago against schools all across the state for culinary laurels, they were nervous — and a teammate down.
But after building a three-course meal in an hour that included orzo pasta with tiny, perfectly cubed carrots, buttered asparagus, a red-wine reduction sauce for lamb chops and a homemade blueberry Bavarian for dessert, the girls took home the top prize. That’s despite the fact that the fourth team member couldn’t make it to the South Portland competition.
Now, they’re sharpening their knives and practicing their skills for their next contest: a national cook-off to be held in Minneapolis in May. The Pro-Start competition, sponsored by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, is a big deal for his students, according to chef Mark Hannibal, who teaches the culinary arts program at the tech center.
“I was trying hard not to cry, seriously. My throat had a big lump in it,” he said Thursday about the moment the team won the state competition at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. “You push and push. It wears on them. Eventually, when it pays off, it’s great. You’ve got to earn a win.”
And the team, made up of captain Amanda Schiessl, 18, of Brooks, Oona Foley, 17, of Montville and Ali Bryant, 17, of Jackson, definitely earned theirs, he said.
The girls — all seniors at Mount View High School in Thorndike — have studied with Hannibal at the regional tech center for two years now. Each said that she came into the program with an interest in cooking or baking, and found that there was plenty to learn.
“Before, I knew basic stuff,” Bryant, who wants to open a bakery one day, said while chopping apples Thursday for a turnover in the center’s professional kitchen. “Here, I feel like I’ve learned different techniques … it kind of shows you the real world.”
Even when they’re not competing for glory, scholarship money or knives — the girls each took home a new professional set of kitchen knives after their win — Hannibal keeps pressing them for excellence. He stopped by the table where Bryant and Foley were working to point out some apple peel that should have been tidied up.
“Take care of the details!” the teacher, who also works as a lacrosse coach at Camden Hills High School, said. “They add up.”
He said that he is proud of his students, who leave the high school program with professional experience and employable skills. Some have gone on to work in restaurants, while others are now studying at places including Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.
At times, Hannibal said, he is frustrated by what he perceives to be a pernicious bias against the technical center by the region’s high schools. Students come there from Belfast Area High School and Searsport District High School, as well as Mount View High School.
“High schools want to send kids to college. We get kids who want to take culinary arts, and sometimes they’re dissuaded by the high schools. ‘You don’t belong with those people,’” he said. “But these are not outsourceable jobs. These are hands-on jobs. You can’t outsource going out to eat.”
All three of the girls on the winning team are looking at continuing their culinary education next year, after they graduate. But in the near term, they’re busy practicing for Minneapolis: perfecting their knife skills, separating chickens and polishing their menu. Hannibal said that the competition there will be fierce, but he believes in his team.
“We’re practicing, refining, focusing,” the teacher said. “With the intention of having a place at the podium.”