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Meet the high schoolers who compete in a national cooking competition every year


As millions of high schoolers prepare for the beginning of football and soccer season, some teens are starting their training in the kitchen. Every year, aspiring chefs around the country compete in a national culinary competition. Is it more "Top Chef" or "Friday Night Lights"? Connecticut Public Radio's Ryan Caron King followed one high school team to find out.


RYAN CARON KING, BYLINE: It's culinary practice at Wilbur Cross High School, and time is running out. One student spoons butter onto scallops sizzling in a pan. Another puts the finishing touches on dessert. Their teacher, chef Nate Bradshaw, coaches from the sidelines.

NATE BRADSHAW: How much - we have, like, 30, 20 seconds? OK. Let's see. Lift one up. Let me see on the bottom. Oh, that's good. Take it off. Take it off. There you go.

KING: The students are making their last preparations for the national championship of competitive cooking. There, the five-person team will have one hour to make a three-course meal. Today in the classroom, they go over their time limit, but Bradshaw's still happy.

BRADSHAW: Everything looked great. Everything looked great. Last fine tuning. Four more practice, four more.

KING: Bradshaw's culinary teams have won nearly every state championship since he started competing 10 years ago. But on the national stage, he says he still feels like they're an underdog.

BRADSHAW: You know, a lot of those schools may have the financial budget. We don't. Some of these schools, some of them is tech schools. Some of them is focused on that trade.

KING: Wilbur Cross is the biggest public high school in New Haven, a small city in Connecticut that struggles to fund its schools. Bradshaw says they're not always able to fundraise enough to buy supplies.

BRADSHAW: We take practice like it's the last time you're going to be able to cook.

KING: At the national competition, the team won't just be cooking. Another group of students works on the second component of the contest - a business pitch for a new restaurant.

ADAM SHARQAWE: Imagine "Shark Tank," except the judges, they don't give us offers at the end, they give us scores.

KING: Adam Sharqawe says his team's concept this year, a West Asian restaurant, was influenced by his Palestinian heritage.

ADAM: It's about giving light to a part of the world that doesn't get that light on the national stage in this country, but also specifically part that I come from and that means a lot to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Forty-five flat, 45 flat, OK?

KING: Three weeks later at the national competition in Washington, D.C., the pressure's on for the Connecticut team. In a banquet hall surrounded by hundreds of spectators, they work to prepare a beef tenderloin, seared scallops and an extra-fluffy chocolate sponge cake.





KING: This time, they finished with seconds to spare. Team manager Antonio Mandania says the only critical feedback they got was on how they prepared the beef.

ANTONIO MANDANIA: Some judges said they loved it. They would eat it any day. Some judges said it was too rare for them, but that's more, like, a preference-based thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Judges, the next round of the competition begins now.

SIMON: When it's their turn, the restaurant management team gives a rapid-fire presentation of their business plan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Nafas Kitchen is a cost-casual West Asian restaurant.

KING: After they finish, teammate Charlotte Butterbaugh is feeling good.

CHARLOTTE BUTTERBAUGH: So by all the judges, we are told that we were really good and that we were really strong. We told to slow down a little bit when we were talking, which - I admit - yeah, we talk pretty fast, the three of us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ProStart students, are you ready?


KING: Later that night at the award ceremony, the culinary team doesn't end up placing. But when it comes time to announce the management winner...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Your 2023 National ProStart Invitational management winner is...



KING: Everyone on the team jumps up to celebrate and hug. Sharqawe is in disbelief.

ADAM: I'm really happy. I'm really proud. I'm really proud of myself. I'm really proud of my team, and I'm happy that I get to, you know, represent my culture and my family. It's awesome.

KING: Sharqawe will return to the team this year as a senior. Over summer break, he started brainstorming new restaurant concepts and recipes with his teammates, but he can't share those ideas just yet. They're top secret until the next competition.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Caron King. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ryan Caron King
Ryan Caron King is a freelance multimedia reporter at WNPR. As an intern, he created short web videos to accompany some of WNPR's reporting online. As a student at the University of Connecticut, he managed UConn's college radio station WHUS, where he headed an initiative to launch a recording and video production studio. Ryan graduated from UConn with a Journalism/English double major in 2015.