by Yulissa Chavez
photography by Hailey Martinez
This is Hell’s Kitchen for high school students. Picture making ice cream from scratch under an hour without the help of a freezer and in front of a panel of judges. That’s exactly what high school students from Bonita High school did during the California ProStart cooking competition.
Laurie Brandler, Bonita High School ProStart and Restaurant Manager teacher, and Nick Brandler, San Dimas High School ProStart and Restaurant Manager teacher, at their respective Bonita Unified School District high schools are husband and wife. They hold annual tryouts from their culinary classes to select student teams that will represent their schools in the state competition.
The California ProStart cooking contest is hosted by the California Restaurant Association and held annually in March at the Long Beach Convention Center. Well-known companies like BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, The Habit, Wienerschnitzel and Coca-Cola sponsor the event.
For their aspiring students, the pressure is initially off when it comes to having prior cooking experience for the try outs. The Brandlers are professionals at teaching the high-level restaurant quality skills needed in the kitchen, but core values such as responsibility, trust, professionalism and organization are key determinants toward making the team.
The students’ tactical and personal skills are put to the test through the tryout that is modeled as a nearly exact recreation of the actual competition: Students have one hour to create a dish that will impress the judges. Nevertheless, when the five students making the team are selected, it is now time to begin the hard work of “bringing home the bacon.”
For three months, these teams work tirelessly to perfect their cooking craft. Unlike other schools that have culinary academies, both San Dimas and Bonita High are limited to a single class period dedicated to the ProStart curriculum. Additionally, the select competing teams meet after school. Moving closer to competition time, the practices get more intense.
“I tell the kids it is like months of hell week, but then you only get one game,” says Nick.
San Dimas High School students initially meet twice a week, then closer to the competition, it is four times a week. About a month out, they meet nearly every day. Their meeting time starts after school at 3:30 p.m. and adjourns at 9 p.m. The entire San Dimas campus shows its support with additional interactive practice. A mock competition in the middle of the quad draws students to try the food, enabling the competing students to get used to being in front of a crowd.
Bonita High School’s program started first with Laurie, circa 2010, when she took students to a Boot Camp to get a feel for the competition. From then, it became a tradition to compete. San Dimas High School’s program soon followed as Nick had the guidance from his wife to develop and lead its program.
Although you may figure that there is “beef” between both schools, the reality is quite the opposite. “We are one big Bonita Unified family, so we aren’t competing against each other,” says Nick. Laurie quickly interrupts to exclaim that San Dimas High School holds the edge, gaining high awards in state competition consistently throughout the years. At home, there’s a truce. The husband/wife team shares tips with one another, and the students, normally historic rivals in sports, cheer each other on. The real rivalry that the ProStart and restaurant/teacher managers promote and share is to compete against yourself.
The actual competition is separated into two parts: culinary and restaurant management. In the culinary competition, there is a team of up to five students who are confined by a 10-foot-square that they can’t leave. Inside the square are very limited tools: two eight-foot tables with two bunsen burners. For the students, this means it all comes down to will power and technique as there are no electronics, no power tools, no ovens and no fridges or freezers. The students get one hour to make two identical appetizers—entrees and desserts—that fall under the category of fine dining. For San Dimas, that meant egg yolk raviolo, a very fancy pasta, and ice cream—both seemingly nigh near impossible to make with the provided equipment.
If you have ever come across dragon’s breath on your social media explorer page, then you understand the hype of having an interactive foggy, cold dessert. The Brandlers stay on top of trends to deliver fun new concepts that capture their audience’s attention at the competition. “We kept experimenting and found that if you smash dry ice to a super fine powder, you can mix it into the ice cream mixture, and the CO2 will evaporate completely and just leave you with ice cream. So, we took that to competition, and when you’re making it, the whole place is flooded with fog. A bunch of the judges were coming over and taking their iPhones out and taking pictures, and the judges were impressed over what the kids can come up with,” says Nick.
The next competition, restaurant management, requires students to create a restaurant concept including a business plan, floor plan, two marketing concepts and a menu with 12 items, then pitch their idea to the judges, who are industry experts. “All the judges are flipping through their business proposal, and after their PowerPoint they get quizzed on everything, so if they have any holes in their concept, whatsoever, the judges will pick them apart,” said Nick. The teamwork is crucial in this competition area as all students must be knowledgeable about their developed concepts—or else. Points are deducted if one or two students dominate the question and answer period.
Competing in the California ProStart competition is stressful for these teens, but the outcome is an incomparable sense of accomplishment, say the two. Laurie says that she has never had a student who regrets signing up for this challenge. “Their reaction is usually something like, ‘It’s so stressful, but I am so glad I did it,’ even if they don’t place.” Not only do the students leave with new or improved cooking skills, but they leave with skills of public speaking, professionalism, adaptability and teamwork, which are useful for their future endeavors. “The California ProStart Cup is more than a cooking competition— it’s a life-changing experience,” says Laurie.