At the Louisiana ProStart Invitational competition, 22 teams of high school culinary students were tasked with a challenge that could overwhelm even the most seasoned chef: Cook a three-course dinner in one hour using two burners and limited space — all while a crowd of judges and spectators watched.

If this sounds like a stressful experience, that’s because it is, by design. Every constraint in the competition is designed to mimic the real-life challenges that arise while working in a kitchen, preparing students for the careers that lie ahead.

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'This is the future of our business,' says Paul Rotner, CEO of Acme Oyster House, of the 22 teams of high school culinary students competing in the Raising Cane's Louisiana ProStart Invitational. 'These kids will go somewhere in the our industry, and it starts here. Seeing what they put out is incredible.'

“You have to be able to work under pressure,” said 18-year-old Niyah Lacour, a senior at East Iberville High School in St. Gabriel, as she and her team wrapped up the culinary competition. “I thought I would freak out, but we had good communication.”

Dressed in chef’s whites, Lacour and teammates David Lucas, Aiyana Provost, Angee Jordan and Madison Stoker presented their ambitious menu to a panel of judges.

Between palate-cleansing sips of coffee, judges critiqued the meal, which included Thai shrimp boil; pan-seared redfish with a red chili glaze; Cajun sausage; a medley of grits, zucchini and squash; and apple and sweet cream wontons topped with rum sauce.

“The apples are sauteed nicely,” said judge chef Michael Ciuffetti, a Louisiana Culinary Institute instructor. “A lot of work went into this dish. It’s heavy on the cinnamon, nice color on the plate. One degree more on the wonton would have given it more pop.”

The group designed their menu and spent two months practicing cooking the meal to get the timing right.

Their participation in Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation’s Raising Cane’s Louisiana ProStart Invitational at the Morial Convention Center is the culmination of years of hard work, planning, cooking and studying.

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From students at East Iberville School came a beautifully plated dish of apples and sweet cream wontons with rum sauce.

“A lot of kids give up their lunch breaks,” said Jeryl Fischtziur, a ProStart instructor at Kenner Discovery High School. “(Before admitting them to the program), we interview them and ask what’s their passion for food, if it’s a career they want, and if they can make a two-year commitment.”

The ProStart curriculum includes a 400-hour internship, an elective class and a national test. More than 1,200 students from 55 high schools across Louisiana take part in the hands-on program.

At the ProStart Invitational, teams participated in the culinary competition and the restaurant management competition, which required them to come up with an original restaurant concept — including its menu, interior design, budget and marketing plan.

West Feliciana High School in St. Francisville won the management competition with a casual Mediterranean restaurant concept. Abbeville High School in Abbeville won the culinary competition with crawfish boulettes, shrimp-topped cod and fried, wonton-wrapped apples. Both teams will advance to the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C., next month.

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Students from Chalmette High School carry their dish to the judges at the Raising Cane's Louisiana ProStart Invitational at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

For Cailey Rousseau, whose team from Academy of Our Lady in Marrero won the 2017 state competition in the restaurant management category, the experience has been life-altering.

“We ugly-cried when we won,” Rousseau said. “When I saw the doors this competition opened, I changed my career path.”

Rousseau earned a scholarship to Nicholls State University and is majoring in business management and minoring in marketing. That combination serves her well as a shift manager at Raising Cane’s, where she hopes to become a managing partner.

Similarly, Lacour’s ProStart experience will inform her studies at Southern University, where she plans to study nutrition.

“ProStart was necessary for that field,” she said. “I take it as a great experience.”

ProStart students are attractive hires for a lot of restaurants, and they infuse a fresh perspective into the industry.

Wendy Waren, Louisiana Restaurant Association vice president of communications, said the next generation of restaurant people are melding Louisiana traditions with international ingredients — and a dash of food TV flair.

“Students are doing more complicated sauces, and they’re more experimental with ingredients,” Waren said. “Twelve years ago, dishes weren’t as refined, and plating wasn’t as important. These kids have a different perspective of what a three-course meal looks like.”

Paul Rotner, CEO of Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation partner Acme Oyster House, said he’s consistently amazed by the students’ creativity.

“This is the future of our business. These kids will go somewhere in our industry, and it starts here,” Rotner said. “Seeing what they put out is incredible.”