ProStart program grooms Cape participants for culinary roles and competition
From the Holiday 2017 issue
On a busy Friday, as the clock ticks toward noon, chefs wearing crisp white coats and blousy hats work intently on stainless-steel counters equipped with white KitchenAid mixers. The cooks and their assistants assemble pizza bubble rings — essentially pepperoni-filled refrigerator biscuits baked in a Bundt pan and served with pizza sauce. While the cooks work, dishwashers clean up behind them. The smell of garlic cuts through the air.
“You always need to be busy doing something,” orders Jennifer Cornell, who is clearly in charge of this kitchen. “Coats on. Aprons on. Hands washed. Tables clean and sanitized.”
The kitchen is not in a restaurant, however. It was built for a culinary class at Cape Henlopen High School that follows ProStart, a nationwide program developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.
Founded in 2000 in response to a shortage of restaurant kitchen labor, ProStart helps students develop skills and build industry contacts. But there is a competitive element as well. Each year, participating schools can send two teams (culinary and management) to state competitions. Winners head to the National ProStart Invitational.
At those competitions, the culinary team must prepare three courses in one hour using just two burners, while the management team develops and defends a restaurant concept to industry professionals. To say the least, it’s a knuckle-biting experience. “It’s like the Olympics,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.
Cape has a good track record at the state competition. Culinary teams have won two first-place awards, and the management teams have won three. Cornell, who has been teaching the ProStart program at Cape for six years, is determined to again make it to the national competition, which is scheduled for April 27-29 in Providence, R.I.
“It’s supposed to be one of the [top] food cities in the world,” she says. It helps that Providence also is home to Johnson & Wales University’s acclaimed culinary program.
The Lewes teams have yet to place among the top finishers at the national competition, but that could change this year.
A tasty tutorial
The Cape students making pizza bubble rings are at the top level of the program, which currently reaches nearly 140,000 participants in more than 1,800 high schools in 50 states, Guam and in Department of Defense schools in Europe and the Pacific. There are 18 ProStart schools in Delaware. (In addition to Cape, Sussex County participants include Seaford High School and Laurel High School.)
To successfully complete the program, students must pass two national exams, demonstrate a mastery of foundational skills and work 400 mentored hours. Those who do so receive an industry-recognized certificate and are eligible for a scholarship through the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. In addition, course credits earned through ProStart can be applied at more than 75 schools with hospitality and culinary arts degrees. Jason Harris, a ProStart graduate at Cape, is now studying baking and pastry at Johnson & Wales.
The credits and scholarship appeal to Michael Boyce, 18, who is considering going to Delaware Technical & Community College and then on to Johnson & Wales. The Lewes-area resident decided to take this career pathway at Cape because “you need to cook in your life — it seemed like a great skill to learn.”
Abby Severin, 16, signed up for ProStart because she wanted to expand her palate. “I’ve always been a picky eater,” says the Cape junior, who lives in the Milton area. She’s discovered that most recipes are versatile. “Everyone will make basically the same thing in class, but we get to pick how spicy or how sweet we want it.”
Bradley Seneus grew up helping his mom in the kitchen. Since she is Haitian, many of the dishes the 16-year-old helps her make at home include rice, beans and goat meat. That interest in cooking prompted him to enroll in the ProStart program. “I like the environment in the kitchen, and I like learning new things,” says Bradley, who lives in the northern Sussex town of Lincoln. His favorite dish to make thus far? Creamed chipped beef.
Putting skills to good use
Next summer, Bradley plans to apply for a job in a restaurant. “Ms. Cornell said she would be my first reference,” he says. Classmate Connor Rasin, 18, is already working in the industry. The Dewey senior was at Ed’s Chicken & Crabs before the Dewey Beach eatery was destroyed in a 2016 fire. Now he “runs” food from the kitchen to the tables at Fins Fish House & Oyster Bar.
“I need to know a lot of different things about the industry,” Connor says. The class has helped: “A lot of the things that Ms. Cornell has been teaching us I’ve applied at Fins.” Though he does not plan to pursue a culinary career, he’d like to continue working in the industry as a second job and become a waiter or bartender.
Mentor Meg Gardner, co-owner of the Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach, believes that part of the program’s appeal is the interactive element. “There’s something about that approach to teaching,” she says. “When you’re sitting in lectures all day and get to a ProStart kitchen, you’re up on your feet and you’re making food — it gets your mind firing a little differently.”
Abby would agree. “You get to learn about the history of food, but at the same time, you get to make it. It’s really fun,” she says.
The students also work as a team and problem-solve on the floor. “[Ms. Cornell] gives us a lot of time to be hands-on in the kitchen,” Connor notes. He also liked when a student currently at Johnson & Wales spoke to the class and then made them a dish while everyone watched. “It opened up a lot of our minds,” he says. “It was pretty cool.”
The social skills, creativity and discipline learned in class can carry over into other fields. Gardner recalls one of the girls she mentored on the management team who went on to study political science at American University. “She told me: ‘I’m doing public speaking and talking to students who are different than me and older than me.’” The student credited ProStart, in part, for her comfort level.
This school year, the Delaware ProStart Student Invitational is scheduled for March 2 at the Chase Center on the Wilmington Riverfront. (It’s also been held in the past at Dover Downs.) Participation in the competition is voluntary — and it’s not easy. “It’s as much work and dedication as playing on a sports team,” Cornell says.
Schools can opt to enter both culinary and management teams or just one of them. But they can send only one five-student team for each category. Instructors like Cornell and mentors like Gardner and her husband, Chef Lion Gardner, teach the culinary team the skills they might need to demonstrate, such as filleting fish or breaking down a whole chicken. The team must also prepare an appetizer or soup, plus an entree and dessert.
The dishes they’ll prepare in the competition are far more advanced than pizza bubble rings. For one menu, Cape students prepared a crab salad appetizer with arugula and blood orange emulsion, a rack of lamb with rosemary and garlic served with rainbow chard and a Yukon gold potato cake, and a coffee-glazed Italian doughnut with fudge sauce and cappuccino foam.
Once a menu is finalized from a list of ideas, the students will practice getting the dish down pat. With only two burners, timing is everything. Michael last year worked on scallops and poached pears. Unfortunately, pneumonia sidelined him from the competition, and when another student had to withdraw due to an eye injury, the culinary team could not compete.
The management team, meanwhile, receives demographics about a fictional city, dubbed ProStart U.S.A., and must come up with a concept that residents there would appreciate. The students present their ideas much like a contestant on “Shark Tank,” and they must answer questions and defend their choices. Public speaking skills and visual aids are a must.
Connor, who is considering being on a team, says the event will look good on a resume. But participating in the curriculum as a whole is a good way to get ahead, Cornell says. The students learn for free to create dishes that culinary students in specialized schools pay top dollar to learn.
Indeed, these ProStart students can use a leg of lamb for a leg up in college or a future career.