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2012 WNY Pro Start Competition

One of the winning dishes

Each year the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association hosts Taste of Education, a fundraiser that provides financial assistance with travel and uniforms to young culinary students slated to compete in the state-level ProStart cooking competition. Year round, ProStart strives to develop talented young culinary students by blending classroom learning with hands-on experience and the opportunity to work with local industry leaders. It provides high school students with a solid footing from which to pursue further culinary education.

Taste of Education, an annual event, consists of area cooking schools tabling a series of cold and warm hors' d'oeuvres that fall under a specific type of cuisine. This year thirteen tables of students prepared Irish food for a host of guests at Salvatore's Italian Gardens. Additionally, a basket auction is held, and entertainment is provided via two chefs from area restaurants who compete in an "Iron Chef"-style competition, cooking in temporary kitchen set-ups in the middle of the banquet room for all to see. This year I had the privilege of judging both the students' offerings and the culinary work of the two pro chefs who were tasked with cooking three dishes in an hour using a single burner. I sat at the judges' table with several local celebrities, including Scott Levin, an anchor for WGRZ, and Lauren Fix, the Car Coach.


A group of students representing their school at the annual Taste of Education

With so many snacks to choose from, guests had quite a feast before them. I quickly sampled very small portions of food from each table and submitted by judging sheet. Several schools prepared some version of shepherd's pie or Irish stew. All were good, but many of the offerings were under-seasoned or a little cool, temperature-wise. Most impressive was the table from Angola BOCES who really broke the mold by preparing curried shrimp salad, a good almond tart, and a tasty interpretation of classic boxty pancakes. All of the students I spoke with were eager in attitude and on-point with their responses to my questions. All of the tables were well tended and tidy. I have seen several well-known charity events where food is served by restaurants from chaffing-dishes to herds of hungry diners. Few seemed as well thought and assembled as the efforts of these young students. At the end of the night it was no surprise to learn that the students from Angola had taken first prize.


Master of Ceremonies Scott Leggett is the corporate chef from US Foods.

The professional chefs competing had no easy task ahead of them. The secret ingredient was revealed and the hour they had to cook began counting down. This portion of the event was also Irish-themed, with Guinness being the secret ingredient. Working on low, standard-size banquet tables with only a single burner each, the chefs had to face less-than-ideal working conditions in addition to the time restraints imposed by the challenge. This year, chef Jessica Laski of Mason's Grille 52 in Hamburg took on chef Mike McGee of the Irishman in Williamsville.

Below are the items both chefs prepared.

Chef Mike McGee of The Irishman

Guinness-braised squash and cabbage over greens, tomato, and feta

Garlic toast with fillet of sirloin, Guinness-brown sugar gastrique, mushrooms, asparagus, and zucchini

Pork chop with potato beet ragu, sautéed peaches and tomatoes


Chef Jessica Laski of Mason’s Grille 52

Classic bruschetta

Guinness and cheese soup with cabbage slaw

Rosemary-crusted pork with orange-infused potato puree and melba sauce


Congratulations to winner, Chef Mike McGee of The Irishman Pub

Both chefs made a good effort, but McGee's smart use of a grill plan to build smoky flavors into his dishes made his meat courses really stand out. Laski's second course was good in concept, but the beer hadn't cooked long enough to eliminate the alcohol and the heavy flavor of "raw" stout clashed with the flavor profile of the very sharp cheddar cheese. Her third course was very, very sweet. Each of these factors may have hurt her in the overall scoring.

Everyone attached to this event should be proud of the efforts they make each year to build our stable of young and enthusiastic culinarians. The state finals will be held next week at the pretty Niagara Falls Convention Center. It is open to foodies and students alike; more information can be found here.




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