McNary’s culinary team of Isaac Mallery, Dakota Smith, Rebecca Hall and Madelyn Hurst took second place in the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association Education Foundation ProStart Invitational in March (Submitted).

The culinary team at McNary High School made up of Rebecca Hall, Dakota Smith, Madelyn Hurst and Isaac Mallery placed second at the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association Education Foundation ProStart Invitational on Saturday, March 18. 

“It was a really big deal. We didn’t think that we would place that well. We were excited to get second. It was a really cool moment,” Hall said. 

With the second place finish, these McNary students earned more than $18,000 in scholarships from culinary schools across the country. 

“Watching them grow and develop a passion for culinary arts has been really rewarding for me,” McNary culinary instructor Wendy Bennett said. “I’m proud of each student. They were dedicated, took the feedback and the reward belongs to them. It was fun to watch.”

“This is something they will never forget for the rest of their life. They will think about it, they will talk about it, they will share it. It should be a very proud moment for them.”

Along with Bennett, these McNary students were also instructed for months leading up to the competition by mentors Austin Stinson and Irina Bakun, who both bring a number of years in the culinary industry to the table.

“We’re here to help them with execution and flavor,” Stinson said.

The ProStart Invitational, which is similar to the Food Network show Iron Chef, requires students to create a unique and delicious three-course menu all in under an hour — which is one of the most difficult aspects of this competition. 

“You definitely can’t take your sweet time when you’re in competition mode,” Hurst said. 

Hall, Smith, Hurst and Mallery had been preparing for the competition since early January, coming in after school multiple days a week to hone their skills. But it wasn’t until about three weeks before the competition where the crew began to form their menu.

“We kind of went for an Asian-inspired theme because it was something we enjoyed to eat and we thought that we could execute it well,” Hall said. 

Hall was in charge of making the appetizer, which was an Oregon inspired salad roll with pickled beets and poached shrimp.

For the entree, Mallery cooked a sesame-crusted local steelhead with couscous and cilantro, while Smith prepared a vegetable stir fry with teriyaki orange sauce. 

“There were some challenging parts, but it was also really fun to prepare,” Mallery said. 

Hurst, on the other hand, made a coconut sticky rice dessert with fruit salad with a bisque sauce.

By the time the cooking was done and everything was on the plate, the team still had 45 seconds to spare and had the chance to make their dishes look clean and professional before putting them in front of the judges.

“We still criticized our own plates, but we did feel good about how it turned out and that we got it done on time,” Hall said. 

Hurst added: “I was proud and relieved that everything that I had been working towards was successful.”

Bennett took a lot of pride in her kids finishing so high, but she is even more proud of the life skills and teamwork that her students have developed over the last few months. 

“We eat everyday, but we aren’t doing things like geometry every day, so it is fun to watch students attain those life skills and have confidence in their abilities,” Bennett said. 

“No matter where you go in life, you’re going to have to work with or for other people, so being able to communicate and problem solve and overcome differences is incredibly important and these kids work together so well.”

While learning how to cook and prepare food is a vital life skill, it’s clear that some of the kids want to take their passion for food further. 

“This has helped me choose my career. I totally want to follow through with a career in the culinary field,” Smith said.