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Four East High School students are forgoing prom to compete at the highest level of a national culinary competition.

“It’s a bummer, but it will be worth it in the long run,” said Gabe Wasserman, a junior, who is on the East team with his twin brother, Isaac.

The team won first place in the ProStart Invitational culinary Midwest competition last month and will represent Wisconsin at the National ProStart Invitational in Providence, Rhode Island April 27-29.

Twenty-one high schools and 112 students competed in the ProStart Invitational at the Midwest Foodservice Expo March 13 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. The East team was the only team from Madison to compete.

The ProStart program is run by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and state restaurant associations. Its curriculum is designed to teach high school students restaurant and food-service industry career skills.

The fine-dining meal the team made for the competition included a starter of pan-seared corvina with black bean-sweet potato hash and coconut broth with cilantro mojo sauce.

The entree was jerk-seasoned quail with duck-fat masa cake, orange-avocado salad, Cuban mustard, and plantain chips.

For dessert, they did a Cuban cappuccino cake with orange-lime syrup, passion fruit sauce, whipped cream, blackberries and basil.

Team member Hayden Cohan, a senior, said his job last summer as a line cook at Baldwin Street Grille taught him how to work under pressure.

At the competition, his team had seven judges watching them, “making sure that every cut was just right,” Cohan said.

The team, which also includes senior Casey McCabe, made mistakes, but dealt with the pressure, Cohan said. “The fact that we were all able to be scrappy and roll with it is really what helped us out.”

Gabe Wasserman said that while all of the team members have food industry experience, it was the first time any of them had competed in a cooking contest.

Because the Wasserman family follows Jewish dietary laws that forbid eating pork and shellfish, the teens were limited in what they could use. “Obviously, that takes away a lot of different food options,” he said. “We met as a team with our mentors and decided that we didn’t want to do the basics like chicken, beef, shrimp.”

Natalie Aguirre, East’s family and consumer education teacher, who runs the school’s culinary arts program, is the team’s adviser. They started experimenting with ideas last fall and connected with their chef mentors at the end of November, she said.

The mentors are Michelle Madden, director of food service for the Stoughton Area School District, and Ami Shimanek and Mark Walters, both from Capitol Lakes. Shimanek is director of dining for the retirement community, while Walters is its executive chef.

In January, the boys began honing their menu and settled on what they would make, Aguirre said. “The last month we worked on perfecting the techniques, plating, and timing,” she said in March.

“We’ve learned a lot about cooking, and especially fine dining with plating and different cooking techniques that are more gourmet,” said Gabe Wasserman, a host at Lao Laan-Xang on Williamson Street.

He said his favorite course was the quail because it’s fairly spicy and “fits really nicely with the orange-avocado salad on that plating.”

The team will be preparing the same meal when it heads to the national competition.

“If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” said Cohan, who also said the jerk quail was the team’s standout plate.

“It’s a pretty risky dish because jerk seasoning is supposed to be pretty spicy, but you don’t know what the spice tolerance is of the judges.”

The team took a unique approach by preparing the jerk quail along with the masa cake made with duck fat and green chilies. “It’s a very risky dish. It’s a very new dish. It’s a really ‘us’ dish and I think that’s really what’s going to get through to the judges at the national competition,” Cohan said.

Shimanek, one of the Capitol Lakes mentors, thinks the team has a good chance of placing at nationals. “We are continuing to practice our dishes, refine our plating, and pay even closer attention to our organization and sanitation,” she said. “If they do everything we’ve been practicing they’ll do really well.”

As for missing prom in order to cook, Cohan is OK with that.

“You get so excited about doing this cool thing, you’re willing to not do that other thing,” he said. “All the excitement that would have gone toward the prom is now going toward this national competition.”

“The fact that we were all able to be scrappy and roll with it is really what helped us out.” Hayden Cohan

Read more restaurant news at go.madison.com/restaurantnews.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.