Award-winning chefs Joshua Manzo, Belen Dorado and Samantha Sansom soon could be creating mouth-watering masterpieces at the finest restaurants.
But don't offer them anything from the bar — they're not old enough.
The three chefs-in-training are juniors in Atwater High School's ProStart culinary program, where they learn all about the restaurant industry from a classically-trained chef.
Their skills were put to the test last weekend when they competed in the California Culinary ProStart Cup in Sacramento. There, the students were pitted against 34 other groups of high school chefs in an "Iron Chef"-style contest.
The students had to fix a three-course meal in 60 minutes on two burners. They won fourth place.
"It was nerve-wracking," said Samantha, who plans to be a pastry chef one day.
Atwater High home economics teacher Diana Alexander knows practice makes perfect. She, along with Mark Tadros, an executive and research chef for Foster Farms, had the trio make their three-course meal about 50 times before the competition.
"It helped a lot," Joshua said.
But it didn't seem to help him remember the basics. With only a few minutes left in the competition, he was accidentally handed a pot right off the stove — without a potholder.
"I burned six fingers," he recalled, as he held out his now-healed hands. "But I didn't let go."
The pain was worth it when the students were given high marks on their three-course meal: lobster bisque, poached crispy chicken and a raspberry, pistachio and white chocolate tart.
"They created the menu all by themselves," Tadros said.
This is a requirement of the contest and something that's emphasized in the culinary curriculum the school uses, called ProStart.
The ProStart program, run at dozens of schools across the state, is sponsored by the California Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. Tadros sits on the foundation's board.
"We've chosen to take on Atwater as a model school," Tadros said. This means the Atwater program will get extra support from the association and be used as an example when other schools are looking to implement ProStart on their campuses.
"It's only one of two schools in the state with that designation," Tadros said.
Alexander's ProStart class holds around 25 students, but not all are as interested in a career in the culinary arts as these three students.
Manzo, Dorado and Sansom will not only pass her class, but also will receive a certificate of completion from the ProStart program once they're done.
One of the ProStart requirements is 500 hours of work in a restaurant. Tadros plans to take Manzo on at the Livingston Foster Farms restaurant.
"We'll definitely run him through the ringer," Tadros said.