Students experience farm to plate first-hand at the Cattlemen’s Classic
for The Fence Post
2018 Cookin’ at the Classic winners:
Champion ProStart Team — The Career Academy of Lincoln
Champion FCS Team — Alma High School
Individual Champion — Hannah Nelson, Wallace High School
Pausing for a brief moment, Ryan Melroy of Kearney High School explained why he and teammate Drew Hardage entered this year’s Cookin’ at the Classic competition at the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Classic in Kearney.
“This is my first year in this contest, but I eventually hope to go into a culinary arts program after high school. Some day, I would like to own my own restaurant,” he said. “This contest is good practice.”
Melroy and Hardage were one of five teams competing in this year’s event. Four individuals also competed. Sheri Weiden, who organizes the contest, said she started it last year to show consumers the chain of how live cattle become beef on a plate. Weiden is surprised how often consumers fail to realize where their food comes from. “This morning, the first question I asked these students was who had been around a farm,” she said. “Last year, one or two raised their hand. This year, no one did.”
Since raising and showing their prize Herefords is a way of life for the Weiden family, she shared that experience with the students by having her son lead a yearling Hereford bull around the sale ring at the classic for the youth to see. “This way, they get to see the whole path,” she said. “They see this bull and what he is used for, and how cattle eventually end up on a dinner plate.”
“Agriculture is the No. 1 money earner in Nebraska, and brings in more than $23 billion a year,” she said to the students. “One in four people in this state have jobs directly related to agriculture. I’m proud to be able to say our state is No. 1 in beef production.”
As a family and consumer science teacher for a number of years, Weiden was looking for a way to tie-in beef production from farm to plate in a way the students and consumers could understand. When she started teaching Pro-Start in Lincoln, Neb., she came up with a plan of how to organize this contest.
Teams of two to three high school students that are freshman to seniors can compete. The only menu requirement is beef has to be the main protein source for the meal. The students have 10 minutes to get organized, and one hour to prepare their dish using a butane burner as their only heat source. Judges score each team on preparation, including sanitation, safety, correct cooking techniques, teamwork and cooperation.
Once they finish, they take the plate to the tasting room where judges will sample the dish, and score it on appearance, how its plated, flavor and how it all works together. “The goal is to have it look like it came from a five-star restaurant,” Weiden said.
Lindsay Higel, who is the director of the culinary and hospitality program at Central Community College in Hastings, Neb., brought several of her students to serve as official judges. “I think contests like this teach students to plan ahead, and be able to execute that plan within the time allotment,” she said. “We want to see them make a plan that will be successful, and teach them how versatile beef really is.”
Higel said her students watch the teams prepare a meal and score them on factors like cleanliness, appearance, overall flavor, and the tenderness of beef. “We also look at the difficulty of the project they have chosen,” she said. “We want them to pick something that is more complex to make.”
The contest also helps the students gain confidence speaking to not only the judges, but consumers who stop to talk with them. “It teaches them how to talk, but not lose ground in what they are making,” she said.
Sara Zimmerman, Maddi Miller and Hannah Bolt, who are all seniors at Platteview High School, won last year’s inaugural event. For this year’s competition, the girls selected Salisbury steak with potato and parsnip mash-up and honey-glazed carrots. “All three of us are considering a culinary field when we graduate,” Zimmerman said. “To prepare for this contest, we practiced at school, and our adviser was the judge.”
Preparation can be difficult. “Our teacher helped us with the menu,” she said. “We had to figure out who wants to do what job, and if one of us doesn’t have something to do at the moment, who they should jump in and help.”
Melroy said his team practiced for the contest two times a week. “First, we started off with steak and potatoes, and then we started trying different sauces until we found one we liked,” he said. “I really like barbecued food. It is my favorite.”
This year’s contest featured teams from Kearney. Wallace, Alma, Platteview, Springfield, Doniphan-Trumbull, and the Career Academy in Lincoln. “We gained a few more teams this year,” Weiden said. “What I would like to see is it continue to grow, and spark an interest in students who may be interested in exploring a career in culinary. My goal is to teach them the farm aspect of where their food comes from.”
Students also spent time in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Mobile Beef Lab. Dennis Burson, who serves as the Extension meat specialist for UNL, showed the group a live fat heifer on a video screen, and the processed meat cuts lying on a table in the mobile lab. He spent time explaining the different cuts of beef, how each can be used and what they cost.
– Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.