For more than a decade, not one District school participated in the National ProStart Invitational, which assembles promising young chefs from all over the country. But all that’s set to change in a matter of weeks when a group of culinary arts students from Ballou Senior High School get to showcase their skills at the Washington Hilton in Northwest.
These young chefs earned their spot in the national competition on Tuesday, March 29, when they won first place at the DC ProStart Invitational, held at THEARC in Southeast. The four Ballou students spent an hour preparing an Asian-inspired three-course meal that included chicken satay with peanut sauce and scallions with Asian noodles.
Judges graded participants in the categories of skill, menu and taste. In the end, the Ballou students defeated their counterparts from Roosevelt Senior High School due to what Ballou freshman Laynard Hairston described as perseverance and attention to detail.
“We practice for about five hours every day,” Laynard said.
Ballou’s winning team included Laynard, his twin brother Laymont, Nevaeh Mclamore and Hassan Coles. The students, enrolled in Ballou’s Academy of Culinary Arts, honed their craft under the auspices of their teacher Chef Shanel Howard.
“I joined [the culinary arts academy] because of my brother,” Laynard said. “In this competition, I learned about sanitation, improving on seasoning and making [adequate room to work] for myself in small spaces. It was about teamwork, communication and cleaning up after we finished using the dishes.”
Sponsors of the DC ProStart Invitational include the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, the Richard E. & Nancy P. Marriott Foundation, DC Central Kitchen, Events DC, Ecolab and LINK Strategic Partners.
ProStart, a national culinary and management program from which the competition got its name, functions through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The program, which fosters skills and career opportunities for high school students, established a local presence in collaboration with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington [RAMW] and DC Public Schools.
The DC ProStart Invitational, five years in the making, had been originally scheduled to launch shortly before the pandemic. As Scott Attman, chairman of RAMW’s nonprofit arm Educated Eats explained, the events of the last two years further highlighted the importance of strengthening the pipeline of talent in the food service industry.
“There’s been excitement to get this program up and running to show people this is a tremendous career path to exercise creativity, utilize teamwork and build a life,” Attman said. “Post-pandemic, there’s more momentum and interest than ever before about shedding that light on the opportunity to work in the food service industry.”
Essinam Bislao, a member of Roosevelt’s team, said she walked away from Tuesday’s competition eager to improve her craft and explore a career in culinary arts. With the list of ingredients in her hand, she advised her peers, Mahmudul Hasan, Angel Pineda Fuentes and Mohamed Turay Jr., as they whipped up bruschetta topped with chili sauce, curry chicken and strawberry and grape agar.
Since meeting Chef James Wiggins in the Roosevelt Culinary Arts NAF Academy several months ago, Essinam recounts developing her confidence and self-expression while experimenting with recipes. She told The Informer she would like to one day conquer a brunch menu, chicken alfredo and a steak dinner.
For the time being, Essinam and her colleagues will take to heart the lessons learned at the DC ProStart Invitational.
“It was really easy at first but there were things we disagreed on and we improved. I learned that if something isn’t going right, then to improvise and always take feedback seriously,” Essinam said. “At first, this class was nerve wracking [because] I was a shy person and didn’t have confidence being in the academy. Now seeing [when] things [go] wrong makes me want to speak out more.”