Dining With Denise Neil

Young Maize chefs who can outcook the pros will compete on a national stage this week

Sorry, Olathe.

There’s a new group of top chefs in the state — and they’re in Washington, D.C., this week trying to prove that they’re also the best in the nation.

A group of Maize Career Academy students managed this year to unseat reigning champions Olathe Advanced Technical Center and take the top prize at March’s Kansas ProStart Invitational — an intense cooking competition in which teams of high schoolers must prepare a fancy, three-course meal in 60 minutes using only two butane burners.

The best chefs from each state earn a trip to the national competition in Washington, D.C., and since 2005, those chefs have always come from Olathe.

This year, however, a five-woman team made up of one Maize South High School and four Maize High School students took the title, wowing judges with a meal that included tender seared scallops over a beet puree with pickled radish and cucumber; a filet of beef atop a rosemary/goat cheese polenta cake topped with a balsamic fig sauce; and a delicate panna cotta with a side of sorbet for dessert.

Seared scallops over a beet puree are one of the dishes the young Maize chefs will prepare in Washington, D.C. Denise Neil The Wichita Eagle

They competed in March in a field of 15 teams including Olathe as well as Wichita schools West, South, Southeast, Heights and Northwest.

They’ll next complete on Thursday morning against teams from around the country for the national title, which always comes with thousands of dollars worth of culinary scholarships. Kansas has won the national competition twice, and students from those winning teams have gone on to do some pretty impressive things, including working in Thomas Keller’s famous The French Laundry restaurant in California wine country.

The team of Maize chefs is made up of Maize High juniors Michaela Birkholz, Olivia Bishop and Madison Beemiller and senior Caitlin Gooding as well as team manager Courtney Downs, a senior from Maize South High.

The competition is a big deal to the students, most of whom have taken four culinary classes at Maize Career Academy. It’s such a big deal, Downs is even missing walking in her high school graduation to attend the competition. She’ll walk with the Maize High students at their graduation instead.

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Madison Beemiller, a junior from Maize High School, is one of the students competing in the national ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C. It’s her job to make the dessert course look perfect. Denise Neil The Wichita Eagle

The members of the culinary team practiced making their competition meal over and over again in the days leading up to their departure, taking suggestions and critiques from their instructor, Cara Poole, and Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association’s Neeley Carlson. They also had industry professionals, including 6S Steakhouse executive chef Kayson Chong, watch them at work and suggest ways to be more competitive. Chong, for example, encouraged the chefs on the steak dish to do a tournee cut on their veggies, even though it’s more time consuming and difficult.

The chefs are not the only Maize students attending nationals in Washington, D.C. . A two-woman team made up of Maize High junior Cassie Onwugbufor and Maize High senior Alex Palmer won the management competition in Kansas this year and will present their proposal for a ramen noodle food truck to a panel of professionals. They’ll also complete on Thursday morning.

ProStart is a nationwide, two-year high school program that pairs high schoolers with industry professionals. Each year, ProStart reaches more than 140,000 students in 1,800 high schools across the country. In Kansas, 2,500 students in 35 schools participate in the program.

The competition featuring the Maize teams will livestream at 10:25 a.m. on Thursday on the ProStart Kansas Facebook page. The winners will be announced on Friday.

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.