Eating up the competition

NEWPORT BEACH — With only first place left to be called in two categories, sophomore Kimberly Tessers' heart was pounding and, at another table, senior Jessenia Hernandez had her head in her hands.

The two teams were going to win it all or go home with nothing.

The management team's win was announced first. The culinary team didn't have to wait long to find out they were joining their peers as national champions, which Jessenia, 17, never thought could happen.

"We were in the middle of shaking all these judges' hands, and we just stopped and we ran to our other team and just started hugging," Kimberly, 15, said Wednesday morning at Newport Harbor High School. "We never thought it would be possible for us both to win."

Newport Harbor High's culinary and management teams represented California at the 10th annual National ProStart Invitational sponsored by the National Restaurant Assn. Educational Foundation over the weekend in Overland Park, Kan.

Eight students beat out more than 300 of their peers, who represented the best of the best across 40 states, to become the first school in the invitational's history to take both competitions.

The top teams walked away with $1.4 million in scholarships and Newport Harbor High students each had about a stack of them, Kimberly said.

The students received scholarships and offers of scholarships to attend specific schools that ranged from a few thousand dollars to a full ride, she said.

The culinary team, which includes Jessenia, Luke Fischer, Jazmin Eck, Kelly Hackett and Marcus McGee, and the management team of Kimberly, Kellyn Perham and Eliza Stubbing are in the advanced class, which is part of Coastline Regional Occupational Program's culinary arts program.

"The kids were … I can't even talk about it," said instructor Janet Dukes, almost in tears. "To have a perfect score in everything but the main course was phenomenal."

Fresh off wins in April's state competition, the teams were prepared with the same menu and restaurant concept at nationals, but the atmosphere was bigger and felt more intimidating, Kimberly said.

The management team had to sell a restaurant concept from menu to marketing, and everything in between, to a panel of judges and then face a critical thinking portion where they were drilled on how they would handle difficult scenarios that could arise in the restaurant field.

The students designed a restaurant called Spotlight in Balboa Park that focused on using the freshest, highest-quality, sustainable ingredients.

The culinary team had one hour to perfectly prepare, cook and plate a three-course menu in a tight space, using just two butane stoves and no running water or electricity.

The students created a menu of seared scallops and braised bacon with blood orange, serrano chile and micro greens, with a white wine braising jus for an appetizer.

The entree was spiced filet mignon with Parisian scoop potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and beech mushrooms with a red wine demi-glace.

For dessert, the team made a chocolate cake with passion fruit whipped cream, and rosemary and black pepper mousse with a passion fruit coulis.

The students had been practicing for about four months every day after school, but the competition still came with surprises.

During the management team's critical thinking portion, they were thrown a question they weren't prepared for when asked how to handle a parent letting an underage teenager drink wine, Kimberly said.

For the culinary team, it was the last 15 seconds that nearly brought disaster, Jessenia said.

With the clock ticking down, Jessenia turned to sauce the completed entrée only to find that it was missing two ingredients, she said.

With a flash of horror at losing points for going overtime, her practice paid off and adrenaline took over and she got the items on the plate and completed with three seconds to spare, Jessenia said.

"When you're in that situation when it's not life or death, but win or lose, it's the adrenaline in you," she said.

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