Dayton Suter, 15, quickly became a wiz at cooking while he was growing up in Felton.

"At a young age, I always helped my mom in the kitchen," he said. When she started working longer hours, Dayton picked up more and more skills — ultimately planning and making all the family dinners and sometimes breakfast, too.

A former student in Red Lion Area School District, Dayton decided to study culinary arts and restaurant management at Milton Hershey School — one of 11 concentrations in the school's career and technical education program.

It was there that he was connected to a statewide culinary competition — and won first place.

Dayton competed in the Pennsylvania ProStart Student Invitational, which includes a culinary and restaurant management competition for secondary students and is hosted by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, a news release states.

Dayton's team won the culinary competition in February and will advance to nationals, held in Washington, D.C. from May 8 to 10.

"Only one team from each state advances to nationals," said Milton Hershey spokeswoman Emily Barge in an email.

Milton Hershey has participated in the annual statewide ProStart competition — part of a 2-year education program — for the last three to four years, Dayton said, and last year one of his teachers encouraged him to apply.

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A sophomore, Dayton was "beyond excited to even be given a chance to try out for the team," he said.

The competition task was difficult — prepare a three-course meal in an hour using only two butane burners and no running water or electricity.

"We are in a 10 by 10 space," which is limited for five people, he said, and because there were so many components to all the dishes, it was a struggle to get the timeline down for when each contestant would use the burners.

Dayton's assignment was the appetizer: a smoked tomato salad with burrata cheese, inspired by a similar dish served on a school trip to Italy.

Two teammates prepared the entree — a venison loin seasoned with ancho chili and cocoa powder, sautéed summer squash, a raspberry port sauce, a sumac onion salad, and fondant potatoes filled with mushroom duxelle — and one prepared the dessert, an apple tart with caramel sauce, while a team manager helped the group with timing.

What struck Dayton about the experience was how focused industry leader judges were on every move and "had a comment on almost everything," he said.

The crowd was larger than he expected, but Dayton was prepared and did not let his nerves get to him, he said.

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“The culinary students spent over 100 hours training for this event,” stated Milton Hershey culinary teacher Sam Katzaman in the release.

The national competition will include the same challenge, so Dayton said his team just needs to  "know what we need to do, and do it."

"I would be very proud of myself and my team if we made the top 10," he said, but added that the experience itself is enough.

After graduation from Milton Hershey, Dayton plans to pursue a 4-year degree in restaurant management and one day open his own restaurant — offering upscale cuisine from multiple cultures, both separate and combined.

More than $1 million in scholarships are awarded to the top five teams in both events, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

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