Olathe South High School senior Melinda Hrdy has always had a passion for cooking. While some 18-year-olds might consider cooking to be warming up a frozen pizza or preparing a box of macaroni and cheese, Hrdy is making such delicacies as pignoli-crusted pork tenderloin with a veal reduction sauce.
That’s just one of the complex dishes that Hrdy and her teammates from Olathe Public Schools 21st Century Culinary Arts program whipped up for the National ProStart Invitational held in April in Anaheim, Calif. More than 400 students nationwide took part in the competition.
The students had to prepare a five-star, three course meal in 60 minutes using only two butane burners and without running water or electricity. And after all of the chopping, measuring and mixing was finished, Olathe’s team of five students walked away with first place at the competition.
It’s the third time in five years that a group from Olathe’s Culinary Arts Program, a two-year career and technical program housed at Olathe North High School, has taken the top spot at the competition. The win was enough to bring Hrdy to what she called happy tears.
“We have put so much time and effort into this,” said Hrdy. “It was probably the most rewarding moment of my life so far.”
The team logged about 35 to 40 hours a week after school for weeks preparing for the National ProStart Invitational. Besides Hrdy, who is the team lead, other members of the team include Michael Miller of Olathe South, Ashleigh Hagen of Olathe North, Rachel Cormeny of Olathe East and Haneen Ibrahim of Blue Valley North.
The group, made up of four seniors and one junior, gained entry to the national competition by placing first in the Kansas ProStart Invitational held in Wichita in March. This was the 10th year in a row that students from the Olathe Culinary Arts program qualified for the national competition.
Chef Mike Chrostowski is one of the instructors for the Culinary Arts Program, along with Chef Phil Shaw. Chrostowski said the students are such hard workers that it has made it that much easier for him to coach.
“The team itself was an awesome team to work with; probably the strongest team we have ever put together,” said Chrostowski. “Their attention to detail and work ethic when it came to practice was higher than ever before.”
Hrdy also credits her incredibly hard-working team with their success at this year’s competition.
“If anything went wrong, we handled it together,” Hrdy said. “We were able to improve and help each other out. Teamwork is what set us apart.”
The team prepared intensely in the weeks prior to the competition, treating each after school practice as if it was an actual competition. Chef Chrostowski even brought in 10 chefs from Kansas City and the East Coast to taste the students’ dishes and provide feedback to them.
The extra effort paid off for the students in more ways than one. The team didn’t just come back with a trophy, but with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money. Each of the five team members was awarded multiple full-ride scholarship offers to some of the best culinary schools in the nation. This means after graduation, they get to choose from a variety of top-notch culinary schools including Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America.
“I tell the kids I get a trophy but you get scholarships,” said Chrostowski. “College is very expensive for these kids and to know that we have students that won’t be in debt for the next 40 years and that they have scholarships to some of the biggest culinary institutions in the nation is wonderful.”
Hrdy has accepted a full-ride scholarship to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., where she will pursue her bachelor’s degree in culinary arts when she heads there in July. She’s excited for the opportunities that await her and her teammates from Olathe’s Culinary Arts program.
“My team is completely full of passionate students that I am honored to work with,” said Hrdy. “I’m sure I will be seeing them in the field later in life.”