Planning and cooking
The Red Wagon Restaurant serves the kind of down-home food your mother used to cook, the kind that makes you feel cozy and warm inside.
The tablecloths are checkered, the plates shaped like metal trays and the milkshakes so thick and frosted your straw stands up straight, as if at attention.
The only problem is that the Red Wagon isn’t real. It’s a concept devised by the Chugiak High School culinary arts management team, and the idea won first-place at the 2014 Alaska ProStart Invitational on March 1.
The competition offers Alaska students a chance to showcase their culinary and restaurant management skills while vying for $71,000 in available scholarships.
CHS instructor Kathleen Vik coached the management team, made up of students Michelle Eliassen, Kaitlan Head, Shayna Pospisil, Maltze Schulz and Jordan Kesler.
The team designed a restaurant concept from ground up, and they began back in September.
The first step was come up with the initial concept.
“We were flipping through the old Dick and Jane books and Jordan says, ‘The Red Wagon!’ and we all loved it,” Eliassen said.
Once they agreed on the name and theme, they worked on the menu, striving to stay within the Dick and Jane era boundaries by choosing items such as meatloaf and funnel cakes.
“It took us four months,” Kesler said. “We had to have 12 items and we kept adding things then taking them away.
They priced items according to standard restaurant pricing guide, figuring out the cost of each ingredient, how much was used and then adding a baseline profit.
They used recipes found online and in books.
“I think what set us apart is that our concept was so detailed,” Eliassen said.
The team got along surprisingly well.
“I don’t think we disagreed throughout the process,” said Head, who competed at Nationals in the culinary category last year.
Jordan developed the marketing strategy, which reads as a smooth and smart as an authentic restaurant marketing guide.
He likened it to contestants pitching on the popular “Shark Tank” show.
“It’s almost like presenting to investors,” he said.
“The judges said it was the most polished presentation they had seen since they began the competition,” Vike said. “One of the judges even said she loved the restaurant and would eat there anytime.”
The competition consisted of an oral and visual presentation plus 20 minutes of questions, where students supplied in-depth answers to topics ranging from sanitation to marketing to customer service.
The management team each won over $18,000 in scholarships plus a Kindle Fire.
“I tell the kids it’s a varsity effort, and you have to go into it with that mindset,”Vik said. “We started working on this in September. We were serious and committed.”
Cutting and chopping
Imagine preparing two three-course gourmet dishes in one hour.
Now imagine preparing them over a portable butane stove with only two burners plus no access to running water or electricity.
Those were just a few of the Chugiak High School’s culinary team’s challenges during the ProStart competition.
The team, comprised of Forest Perish, Nou Yang, PaKou Yang, Cindy Lee and Carolanne Moore, produced two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts within the competition’s narrow timeslot.
They devised their menu back in December and tweaked ingredients during thrice weekly school practices.
According to Vik, the school receives no funding for culinary arts food supplies.
“Everything is through fundraising,” she said.
Local companies supply the team with fish, and Sleeping Lady Lions Club donates the bulk of their monetary budget.
All agreed that the Bunsen stove heightened the difficulty level of the competition.
“The burners can go out, which really sucks,” Moore said.
The timing aspect proved equally frustrating. Trying to navigate six courses and four student chefs around two small burners requires intricate time management.
“We actually sat down and made a timeline for the burners,” Perish said.
They practiced so often that by the time the competition hit and they began to cook, it felt like just another day in the kitchen.
“Still, there was a lot of pressure,” Lee said.
The team cooked for 50 minutes and saved the last 10 minutes for plating and presentation.
Each dish was required to not only adhere to portion size but balance over the plate.
“We were hoping we would win and thought we did well but we didn’t know until we finished,” Lee said.
The team, mentored by Brian Cox from Crossbar, won each student over $18,000 in scholarships plus a knife set.
Both the culinary and management teams head to nationals in Minnesota May 3-5.