SOUTH FORSYTH — Five girls had one hour to make a three-course meal, with two burners and taking taste and presentation into account. One slip on a cutting board or drop of a pan — or half of a fingernail — could cost them much-needed time to complete their task.
The first-ever all-girl culinary team to be coached under South Forsyth High’s current chef was faced with more than one obstacle, but it overcame them all to end up breaking records and placing second in the nation at the recent National ProStart Invitational.
Held in Anaheim, Calif., the annual competition showcases the deliciously creative capabilities of students enrolled in the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program.
“I was afraid of having an all-girl team because sometimes it’s hard to get a group of girls to click,” said Dawn Martin, culinary arts instructor at South. “But they did. They’re like my family. They’re here all the time.
“A lot of the times, I see them more than they see their parents. They get here at 6:15 a.m. two to three days a week and sometimes [stay] until 7:30-8 p.m.
“They’re here until it’s done. They’ve never told me, ‘I can’t do it.’”
The culinary program at South has about 200 students, Martin said. About 30 to 40 usually graduate from the career pathway, with five to seven going on to culinary school.
Competition takes up the amount of time it would take to play two seasons of sports, Martin said. Two members of this team gave up a sport to join.
The competition challenged 89 student teams from high schools across the nation to create an appetizer, entree and dessert in 60 minutes. Teams were judged on preparation, taste, skill, knife handling, safety and sanitation.
South’s team participated in the culinary category, though there were also squads that entered for restaurant management. South was edged out by a high school in Kansas and topped teams from Ohio, South Carolina and Guam.
Makenzi Petrin, a junior, was in charge of making the appetizer, mountain trout stuffed with king crab, served with pickled vegetables and a carrot sauce.
Martin got a call from Petrin, who runs a cupcake business out of her house, the night before the competition. She injured her foot and was in a boot. Except for during the competition.
The young business owner said she wants to go to Johnson & Wales University for baking and pastries after realizing her love for cupcakes during a Relay For Life fundraiser.
Then came the entree — made and plated by one of the team’s two seniors, Jisun Ham — a chicken and dumplings dish with rhicken roulade, served with semolina-sage gnocchi, peas and mushroom sauce, honey-glazed carrots and shallots.
All three dishes represent foundations of Southern cooking. The girls used “Georgia Grown” products to emphasize regional items.
This combination of local mentality and teamwork earned them the highest placing a Georgia team has garnered.
“When I was little, my parents would work a lot, and I had siblings so I just took on the responsibility of cooking,” Ham said.
After graduation, she is attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hyde Park, one of the most prestigious culinary colleges in the nation.
To top the meal off, senior Olivia Fissé created a chocolate Bavarian for dessert with warn ricotta fritter, honey pecan glaze and berry coulis.
She also plans to attend CIA. In fact, Fissé and Ham are going to be roommates.
“I started cooking when I was young, too. My family has some restaurants, so I would help out at my uncle’s restaurant. My mom makes really good food,” Fissé said. “It brings the family together.”
Food brought the family in South’s kitchen together, too.
During the competition, junior Tiffany Flatman’s task was to do the chopping and plating, helping with all of the loose ends for every dish.
Flatman, who grew up helping her mom and older sister in the kitchen, also wants to go to culinary school.
As swing cook, she was vital to the team completing its dishes. In practice, the team had not finished plating the food with more than a minute and a half to go.
When she cut her finger and couldn’t come back, they had to wait seven minutes before their alternate could take over.
“[The other girls] didn’t know what was going on,” Martin said. “I can’t talk to them during the 60 minutes, and my gut was just wrenched.”
In came junior Kaitlyn “Kat” Abercrombie, who learned how to cook from her grandma’s Southern style.
“I just focused on switching my perspective from the outside,” she said, “from how I see it watching to how [Flatman] sees it.”
Four other teams also had chefs who cut themselves. None of them finished.
South’s girls plated their dishes with less than 10 seconds to go.
Each girl won more than $85,000 in scholarships and a knife kit.
“I checked the cutting board for blood, but we never stopped to get a game plan,” Fissé said. “We just kept going.”