by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — It was 'dish delish' inside the Conference Center Niagara Falls as hundreds of culinary and management students, parents, teachers and professionals came from across New York state for a tasty competition Saturday.
Whether from a participating Board of Cooperative Educational Services program from as far away as the lower Hudson River area or high schools from Johnson City, the students – who've trained since the first few weeks of school in September – had an opportunity to show off their burgeoning culinary skills in a Food Network-like competition.
"They had to prepare a complete meal," said Ken Desmond, chairman of the New York State Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation. "From an appetizer to a main course all the way to dessert, they're all supervised and judged on the whole process. Then ... a panel of top chefs judge the food based on presentation, creativity and other criteria.
"Then, on the management side, they have to develop a theme, create a menu, marketing, determine food costs, everything they'd have to do at a real restaurant. They're viable ideas."
Saturday's fun in the kitchen was the ninth time the state's Restaurant Association held the event. They were here last year as well, but previously visited Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and the New york City area as well.
And while two competing groups of students – Capital Region High School from Albany (culinary) and Erie II BOCES from Lakeshore (management) – are headed to the national competition in Baltimore next month, the 14 culinary teams and eight management teams each had an opportunity to meet with representatives from colleges who offer culinary training.
Though the winners got the grand prize, those colleges offered more than $2 million in scholarship opportunities, a price Desmond said has never been achieved in the competition's history.
Why is culinary work so popular today? Locally, the Niagara County Community College Culinary Arts Institute has provided students with a top-of-the-line place to learn. But the Food Network's popularity, with its numerous celebrity chefs, has also contributed to the rise of cooking, Desmond said.
It's the reason these students could find great job possibilities when they leave college in four or five years, or even if they bypass college completely.
"It's a fascinating thing to watch," Desmond said. "These kids will get jobs when they come out of college, and they pay a lot better now than they did five years ago thanks to the Food Network."
"The goal of the competition is to bring the industry professionals face-to-face with the kids we're training," said Elisabeth Soscia, educational coordinator for the state Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation. "It makes it more likely they'll be hired when they finish school."
Saturday's contest was run through a program called ProStart, with support from companies like Rich Products and Wegmans. Approximately 400 high schools throughout the state filter about 45 programs state-wide.