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Mountain culinary team gears up for trial by fire at national competition

At Henderson County Career Academy, there's no worry about having too many cooks in the kitchen. The bigger concern is too little time. It is trial by fire as students prepare for the National ProStart Invitational against culinary teams from all 50 states. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

At Henderson County Career Academy, there's no worry about having too many cooks in the kitchen. The bigger concern is too little time.

"We're at competition, get started. Start the time now," shouted Mandy Hines, the hospitality director of the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association.

It is trial by fire as students prepare for the National ProStart Invitational against culinary teams from all 50 states. The team leaves for the event in Rhode Island on Thursday. They're competing for scholarships at culinary schools across the country.

"Well, we practice three days a week," Rhiannon Webb said.

"Excited, nervous, mixed emotions," Marlen Alonso summed up.

Everyone's tired but ready to prove themselves on a big stage.

"Their creativity, the sky's the limit," Hines said.

The three young cooks whip up three courses with just two butane burners and she sees all the ingredients for character building.

"They have to construct a menu -- starter, entree, and dessert -- to be made in less than 60 minutes with no electricity and no running water," Hines explained.

The menu planned is top secret, but we can tell you it is an Ode to the Chiles of Mexico.

"Trying to carry the flavors all throughout the menu," student Juana Castillo said, describing the challenge. "So they can all, like, blend in together."

Castillo is in charge of the appetizer, Webb is responsible for the proteins, and Alonso has got dessert.

"It takes a lot of hard work and communication with others," she said.

Back in February, the team won the Career Academy's first state competition. Soon, the stakes will be even higher at the national level.

"The students are challenged because the competition is so fierce," Hines said. "We see a lot of personal growth that we see in these students."

Webb works at a local McDonald's so you could say she's used to fast food, but nothing like this.

"I plan to be a chef after I graduate," she said. "It's been a lot of work, so it's preparing me a little bit for what it's going to be like."

Castillo's secret ingredient is poise. She cooks for her two brothers, so this is no big deal.

"Cooking with my friends and it's just, like, relaxing and calming," she said describing the hectic practice regimen.

Together they rise to the occasion when the heat is on.

"So, they're learning culinary skills, but they're also learning things like menu design and customer service," Hines said. "So, all three of these students have worked very hard."

Despite all the hurdles in competition, what they bring to the table is impressive.

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