Chopped Meets Shark Tank In High-Stakes Teen Cooking Competition
Chopped Meets Shark Tank In High-Stakes Teen Cooking Competition

Chopped Meets Shark Tank In High-Stakes Teen Cooking Competition

LONG BEACH, CA — Fifteen minutes before time was called a team of five high school students put their hand-made Raviolo Doppio in a pot of boiling water.

The five-student team from Bonita High School in La Verne spent the last hour lovingly crafting a three-course gourmet meal at the Long Beach Convention Center for a set of judges at the 2024 California ProStart Cup. In its 22nd year, the competition gives exceptional teams of student chefs a chance to show off their chops.

Around the students, judges circle the table and monitor their technique, communication and cleanliness as they craft technically complicated dishes such as a hand-whisked merengue and pan-seared elk. When the time is called and two sets of appetizers, entrees and desserts are plated the team shares an excited embrace.

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The Bonita High School team is just one among over 30 teams from all over California that competed in this year’s BJ’s Restaurants Culinary Cup, each with unique themes and visions for the courses they present to the judges. The winning team will go on to compete in the National ProStart Student Invitational in Baltimore, Maryland.

Executive Director of the California Restaurant Foundation Alycia Harshfield described the energy of the competitions as electric, as the anticipation and months of preparation all build up to the moment the judges say go.

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“I always get emotional because in that room, at that moment, is everyone who has made this happen,” Harshfield said. “The teachers who are giving them their time after school and on weekends, the mentors and coaches, the students that have worked so hard, the judges that are volunteering, everybody is there to say ‘let’s do this, let’s see what you can do and realize your potential.'”

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High School senior at Orange County School of the Arts and 17-year-old Trinity Wiideman is in her last year of competing in the ProStart Cup before she goes on to study at Cal Poly Pomona. Trinity has participated in ProStart three times, making it to Nationals in 2023, and said she learned the most about the power of teamwork in the competition.

With a shifting group of kids each year, it takes a lot of work to become a cohesive unit in the kitchen, Trinity said, but when it all comes together the teens are able to make something amazing that they are proud of.

“This competition doesn’t teach you just how to cook but it teaches you how to be a better person and how to grow in different leadership skills,” Trinity said. “With all the competitions I’ve done, it’s not about cooking, it’s about getting to meet people.”

The winning teams from each of the four different competitions at the ProStart Cup are given medals and scholarships. With 12 colleges in attendance ready to offer these students thousands of dollars for their education, the pressure is high.

Students who have competed in the competitions in past years said their experience at ProStart helped kickstart their careers. Many former competitors come back to volunteer to judge their culinary successors.

Harshfield has worked for 15 years with the Restaurant Foundation and said she is proud to see the kids she’s known since they were 14 years old go on to have flourishing careers as professional chefs.

“I’m grateful for them, that they want to be back and they want to share what they learned along the way and inspire the next generation coming up behind them. It’s so rewarding to see that continue,” Harshfield said.

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