Feeling the heat: Pillager culinary students cook their way to nationals

Pillager's ProStart team is heading to Washington, D.C. to take part in the national culinary competition May 2-4.

Islay Peterson flips noodles in a pan at Pillager High School.
Islay Peterson flips noodles in a pan during a practice run Sunday, April 23, 2023, at Pillager High School. The ProStart team will compete in the national competition May 2-4 in Washington, D.C.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

PILLAGER — Things are heating up in Pillager.

Six students in Jenny Wise’s ProStart culinary class at Pillager High School cooked their way to the national competition in Washington, D.C.

The kids will head to the nation’s capital Monday, May 1, in preparation for the National ProStart Invitational later that week.

Put on by the National Restaurant Association, the competition requires students to prepare a three-course meal in one hour, complete with appetizer, entree and dessert.

“We’re definitely — for lack of a better term — feeling the heat,” junior Samantha Berent said while starting on some risotto Sunday, April 23. “But I think we’re gonna go out there, and it’s gonna be a blast, and we’re just gonna do what we need to do.”


Berent and the other student chefs invited their parents and family members to watch a full run-through of their meal last Sunday in preparation for the big event.

Chef Tom Kavanaugh, the team’s mentor, shouted out the time and asked the kids questions as they chopped, fried, boiled and sauteed in their classroom kitchen. The menu begins with an appetizer of Roman mortadella meatballs, lightly deep fried and served with hand-rolled Chittara pistachio pasta, pistachio cream sauce, fresh ricotta and basil and orange zest.

Pillager culinary competition practice
The three-course meal Pillager ProStart students will cook at their national competition includes meatballs, pistachio pasta, grilled venison chop and a chocolate ganache tart.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Next up is an entree of pan-seared venison chop complemented with a green peppercorn sauce, black mustard seed apple marmalada and horseradish gremolata, served with forest mushroom risotto, vegetable saute and charred shallot.

The meal is finished with a dessert of a chocolate ganache and peanut tart, made with creamy bittersweet chocolate ganache in a fresh peanut crust, with fresh raspberries, chantilly vanilla cream and peanut caramel, complemented with house made peanut butter gelato and crispy tuile.

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Students have been fine-tuning the menu since January, making tweaks here and there when they feel it’s needed. They even made some last-minute changes the night before the state competition in February. And apparently it paid off, as the team took first place, advancing them to nationals.

The win marked the first time a school north of St. Cloud won the Minnesota state competition, putting Pillager on the map in the ProStart community.

“We’ve kind of squeezed ourself into the elite culinary programs,” Kavanaugh said.


Those elite team members include Berent, Islay Peterson, Delaney Deuel, Malaney Laveau, Ethan Thom and Briana Blais.

Thom acts as the manager, making sure the student chefs are on task and working within their time constraints. He and Blais are the two alternates, required to know how to accomplish all the various kitchen tasks in case one of the other four chefs is unable to compete.

The students work together like a well-oiled machine, calling out “changing gloves” and “yes, chef” as they go about their duties. Sometimes it’s like kitchen ballet, Kavanaugh said, as they all move about in the small space, but for the Pillager students, it works.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Deuel said Sunday while chopping up some garlic. “We’ve been practicing for about seven months now, so we’re getting pretty comfortable with it.”

Pillager culinary competition practice
Delaney Deuel puts the finishing touches on the appetizer Sunday, April 23, 2023, at Pillager High School.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

If someone had told Laveau last year she would be in a culinary class this year, making desserts, piping caramel into a carefully drawn triangle on a plate, she would have laughed.

But now she’s grateful for the new opportunity she has been given, the people she’s met along the way and the memories she’s sure to make with her teammates in Washington, D.C.

“I’m really pretty nervous, but I’m also super excited,” Laveau said.

As of Sunday’s practice, Peterson still hadn’t quite totally grasped the idea of going to nationals.


“I’m nervous, but it’s kind of like I’m in shock right now — like we’re not going, but we are,” she said. “It hasn’t set in.”

But it is indeed true.

The competition — featuring more than 400 students from across the country showing off their management and culinary skills — takes place May 2-4.

All but two states will be represented on the culinary side, adding up to 47 teams the Pillager students must contend with.

“I feel very excited and also very prepared,” Wise said of her students. “... It’s been really kind of hard to frazzle them. They’re pretty set in doing this.”

As if navigating the small kitchen while cooking up gourmet concoctions isn’t enough, students will also field questions from judges about what they’re doing and why during the competition. The food itself is only worth half of the score. The other half of the 100 points students can earn will come from tasks like knowing proper sanitation techniques, precisely laying out their recipes and creating a restaurant-worthy menu.

Judges are professionals in the culinary and restaurant industry — those like Kavanaugh, who judged the national competition in 2011. After helping Elk River get its ProStart program set up, Kavanaugh moved on to Pillager — his alma mater — which adopted the program in 2013. Pillager students started competing in 2017 and have been fortunate to benefit from extensive community support along the way.

“From businesses to individuals to groups, right here at school with our booster club, the Lions Club here in town, resorts — lots of great support,” Kavanaugh said. “So I’m pretty excited about that.”


And that support is what has made the trip to nationals a reality, with the team successfully raising roughly $15,000 in the two months since the state competition.

“And we want it to be kind of a special deal for the students as well,” Kavanaugh said. “... We’re gonna eat at a couple of really nice restaurants, so we’re living it up. They’re going to be under a lot of pressure out there, but we’re gonna enjoy some stuff, too.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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