By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – When Team Phoenix, a group of four student chefs in the Exeter Job Corps Academy’s culinary arts program, needed to choose a captain for a prestigious cooking contest held Feb. 16 at the Radisson Hotel, in Warwick, there was only one contender.
“We looked at Cassie and picked her as team leader,” recalls Krystal Strait, of the unanimous selection of Cassie-Lee Joseph.
“It’s her attitude,” explains Gary Braun. “There’s no bull.”
“I like everything on point, no ‘what ifs’,” Joseph says. “I’d never worked with them before; I’ve always worked alone. It was a new experience.”
Because she leaves nothing to chance, the team leader called a Saturday practice. Getting Justin McClinton, the fourth team member, out of bed proved problematic.
“I woke him up at 9 a.m.,” says Joseph. “I said ‘If you’re not up in five minutes, I’m coming back.’ He went back to bed and I went to get him. I said ‘Justin, please don’t make me hunt you down’.”
McClinton, who towers over Joseph but responds well to implied threats, was on his feet and moving in a flash.
As a result of their diligence, the team’s three-course presentation was so delicious the prominent panel of 20 judges for the first Rhode Island ProStart Competition awarded them first place. The event was sponsored by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, US Foods, the National Restaurant Association and Johnson & Wales University.
Among the judges were a cookbook author, chefs from hotels, resaurtants and Twin River, as well as local TV chef Frank Terranova.
First place medalists received scholarships from Johnson & Wales, the New England Culinary Institute, Lincoln Culinary Institute and the Louisiana Culinary Institute.
Two other Exeter Job Corps teams placed second and third. Second-place contestants were Renee O’Connor, Micayla Hubbard, Roul Henry and Melissa Isherwood; the third-place team comprised Rafael Alvarez, Maria Rivera, Katharine Wright and James Kibbe.
On April 27, the winning team will travel to Baltimore, Md. for the weekend to recreate the prize-winning meal at the National ProStart competition to be held at the Marriott Waterfront hotel.
“There will be 42 teams,” says Joseph P. DiPina, Jr., director of the Exeter academy. “We’re the only Job Corps in the country to compete in the national contest. It’s pretty special. I’m proud of the whole thing; it’s an opportunity for these young people to shine.”
The culinary arts students turn out spectacular meals on a daily basis in a classroom that’s been transformed into an elegant café. They fulfill the roles of maitre d’, table servers and chefs. The kitchen is a beehive of organized activities with everyone working quickly on task.
As a result, visitors are treated to such fare as savory chicken soup, prime rib with mushroom gravy, fall-off-the-bone barbecued ribs, a grilled vegetable medley of pea pods, red and green peppers and asparagus and a selection of decadent desserts.
“We run the café like a restaurant,” says chef-teacher Mark Bennison. “It’s a model for other culinary programs across the country.”
The initial contest in Warwick was rigorous and there’s no reason to imagine the nationals will be any easier.
Team members’ tasks included chopping vegetables and expertly separating a whole chicken. Teams were timed as they prepared their meals using only two propane burners. They were also judged on whether their uniforms were sufficiently ironed and crisp.
While they’re taking the same ingredients to replicate the winning meal, the students have been tweaking their recipes in response to judges’ feedback.
The appetizer – a salad of warm almond-crusted, pan-seared brie with mesclun greens and raspberry vinaigrette, which was made by Strait – will be tossed instead of spritzed with the dressing. The main course, prepared by McClinton and Braun, is pork loin scaloppini with dried cranberries, apple demi-glaze, sweet potato puree and broccoli rabe. “It was above and beyond,” declares Braun. “They couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. It was flawless.”
Dessert, a chocolate raspberry hazelnut torte created by Joseph, will be lighter on the bottom layer. She failed to follow the advice of Bennison, a chef and instructor for 31 years, and the judges agreed with his evaluation that the dessert was bottom-heavy.
“I cried,” Joseph admits. “I was disappointed in myself.”
Now team members are so confident they think they have a good chance of winning. They are passionate about food.
Braun, of Dudley, Mass., who initially wanted to learn computer repair but was put, instead, in a series of food classes, says he fell in love with culinary arts. His dream is to become head chef at a high-end hotel.
Joseph, who hails from the Bronx, says “I grew up baking. I would shut down the whole kitchen” to try new recipes. Her goals are either to work at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City or own her own bakery. Ever organized, she calls them Plan A and Plan B.
Strait, of Glenfield, N.Y., will be attending Johnson & Wales. She remembers helping her mother and grandparents with cooking chores. “I was always in the kitchen with my family.”
McClinton, who calls Lynn, Mass. home, explains that with both parents working, “I was home alone every day. If I wanted to eat, I had to learn to cook. I looked online, found recipes and started making chicken and pork” dishes for the family.
“Chef [Bennison] put this team together,” says Joseph. “We’re all so excited. We couldn’t be prouder.”
According to DiPina, there are 45,000 young people in 125 Job Corps centers nationwide learning specialized skills and preparing to go out into the world as responsible adults. There are another six million whose low-income status makes them eligible for the program.
“There’s a huge unmet need,” he says.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.