By Katie Thomas
Explorebigsky.com Contributor

BIG SKY – Iron Chef America has been to Montana.

Chef Cat Cora, the only female Iron Chef of The Food Network’s competitive culinary show, attracted a large turnout with a sold out event at Buck’s T-4 Lodge on April 11. Sponsored by the Rapier Family Foundation, Chef Cora served as one of the judges for Belgrade ProStart’s fundraiser in Big Sky that Thursday evening. The high school students were raising funds for their trip to the ProStart nationals in Baltimore, April 19-21.

ProStart is a two-year high school program for aspiring professional restaurateurs, developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. Having won the state-level contest, Belgrade students teamed up with local professional chefs at Buck’s for a competition in which three teams had one hour and limited equipment to prepare a starter, main dish and dessert, using a surprise secret ingredient. Judges then tasted, deliberated and selected a winner.

Before the competition, Chef Cora addressed the audience and took questions. A Greek American from Mississippi, she captivated the audience with her warm, welcoming presence. One by one, students tentatively asked for advice on pursuing cooking careers.

“Always go back to your food. That’s the reason you’re there,” said the mother of four, advising the students how to stay focused in the kitchen.

During the cocktail hour and silent auction, the student management team presented plans for their future restaurant, complete with building materials and marketing plans.

The culinary contest commenced with an announcement of the surprise ingredient: “duck bacon,” something Buck’s owner and chef Chuck Schommer swears by.

The clock began, and the teams hit the cutting boards. Emcee and Ophir Elementary School teacher Jeremy Harder entertained the audience, the chefs working as fast as they could and the smell of sautéing garlic filling the room.

When the hour was up, chefs put down their utensils and auctioneer Emory Sanders picked up the mic for the live auction. Denver Bronco tickets, vacation packages and gourmet meals and wine sold while the panel of four judges tasted plates of delicacies.

The winning team, which created an adobe and blood orange-marinated poussin with basmati rice and buckwheat pilaf, was announced around 8:30 p.m. But none of the teams “lost” – all competing students traveled to Baltimore.

Cora is the first woman inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame and her foundation, Chefs For Humanity, has helped with the aftermath of the 2012 Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

“Don’t give up,” she reminded the young audience as she talked about her work experience. “Perseverance. Invest your free time. Be present. Pay it forward.”