ProStart Program Sparks Appetite for Aspiring Chefs

High stakes in national competition spotlights some of Delaware’s finest.

William Penn High School’s Teen Spirit includes (from left) Endy Ortiz, Jon Willis, Israel Plascencia and Danielle Neubauer.

One hour. Two burners. Three courses. If you think it sounds like the rules for a reality cooking show, you’re close. Though the competition is not on TV, the stakes are real. The participating chefs, however, aren’t celebrities or professionals. They’re high school students.

This is the National ProStart Invitational. The event May 3-5 in Minneapolis provides plenty of nail biting.

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“It’s definitely nerve-wracking,” says Lion Gardner, executive chef of Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach. For two years, Gardner has been a mentor to Cape Henlopen High School students, whose culinary team went to the nationals in Baltimore last year. “They’re expected to be professional, and they’re treated like adults by the judges.”

To demonstrate knowledge of the restaurant and food service industry, student teams develop and defend a business plan for an original restaurant concept. This year, both the culinary and management teams at Cape Henlopen High School are headed for nationals, which offers up to $1.4 million in scholarships.

“It’s like the Olympics,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, which partners with the program. “It’s like a movie.”

About 100 ProStart students from across the state will also participate in various ways during the MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival this month. “We are extremely involved,” says Kip Poole, culinary instructor at William Penn High School. Students will help the chefs in the kitchen at pop-up dinners, in restaurants and during five-courses meals served in private homes.


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Cooking Up a Curriculum

ProStart is one of the largest youth development programs in the country. Participation can lead to new skills, industry contacts, certification and, ultimately, jobs.

The need for it became evident in the 1990s, when the industry hit a labor crisis, says Xavier Teixido, a past chairman of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. So the foundation developed a pilot program in 2000. Instruction covers such subjects as management and kitchen essentials, food safety, marketing, nutrition, purchasing, inventory and cost-control. 

Today there are ProStart programs in about 2,000 high schools in 48 states serving 100,000 students. Students who complete the requirements—which include passing two national exams, demonstrating mastery of foundation skills and working 400 mentored hours—can earn the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement, which qualifies them for scholarships and college course credits at 60 colleges and universities. “It’s huge,” says instructor Poole, who started the program at Penn. “It really pushes them.”

While exciting, the competition is not mandatory. Students volunteer. Gearing up for the state competition starts in September. 

At William Penn, for example, students met in the fall with mentor Andrew Feeley, executive chef of Eden, to brainstorm menu ideas. (Students must prepare an appetizer or soup, entrée and dessert.) The team then narrowed the list to 13 possibilities. 

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Few would argue these aren’t restaurant-worthy menus. For the 2014 state competition, Cape Henlopen planned a crab salad appetizer with arugula and a blood orange emulsion; 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 in a white chocolate cup.

Once the team selects a menu, they finesse each dish within the time limit. Remember, there are only two burners. “You figure out who needs to do what and who needs the burner and when,” says Jennifer Cornell, the family consumer sciences teacher at Cape Henlopen. “It’s quite a dance.”


Restaurant Wars

While the culinary competition can spark interest among observers outside the industry—it is food, after all—the management side draws those either in the industry or those hoping to join it.

The students receive the demographics of a fictional city, dubbed ProStart, U.S.A. William Penn’s city had more than 400,000 residents and a rich nightlife. “There are museums, there’s great architecture and a prominent restaurant life,” says senior Jon Willis. “We did the math and realized it’s a lot like Minneapolis.”

The team based its concept on Southern comfort food, but instead of serving fried chicken, their restaurant would serve fried quail. “It’s a twist on a trend,” Willis says. “We’re re-creating it.” The team prepared and photographed dishes for the presentation. They even detailed the restaurant’s decor and layout. 

Cape Henlopen won this year for a family-friendly, eco-friendly Asian concept. The students present the information as if they’re appealing to investors. “They have to defend it,” Cornell explains. Public speaking skills are a must, as are effective visual aids and industry know-how. 

Between March and May, Cape Henlopen has had time to tweak the plan and menu. For the 2013 national event, for instance, Cape Henlopen opted to make the menu more complicated, Gardner says.

“Instead of having empanada dough already made, we decided to make homemade dough all within the hour timeframe.” They also filleted the fish in front of the judges to demonstrate technique. “We wanted to add as much as we could. The kids wanted to push themselves—which they did.”

Even with two months of practice, anything can happen. Aubrey Inkster, who went to nationals last year with Cape Henlopen, recalls teammate Junior DiMaio cutting his finger and seeking medical help. “It wasn’t too bad,” Inkster says. “He was only out for two minutes.”

But during those two minutes, the team’s empanadas were left on the burner too long. Once back in the game, DiMaio made new dough from scratch. “We’d run through it so many times, I knew I had time to try again,” he says. “I wanted to serve something right.” 


The Real World

Interacting with the pros during competition and in class helps the students make contacts. One worked with Gardner at Blue Moon last summer, and he keeps in touch with others. Gardner, who teaches in the Delaware Technical Community College culinary program in Dover, took DiMaio to work with him to check out the program.

William Penn offers hands-on experience through its culinary program, which runs Penn Bistro, the school’s in-house café. The students also handle catering jobs, from weddings to parties to participating in Gov. Jack Markell’s inauguration event.

Many are now on the path to hospitality leadership. Inkster hopes to go to Drexel University, where he can study hospitality and the culinary arts and get a four-year degree. William Penn senior Kevin Castro, who’s been on the management and culinary teams, applied to culinary-hospitality programs at the University of Delaware and Cornell University.

DiMaio, who plans to go to The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, says ProStart definitely influenced his career choice. “I learned the basics and it motivated me to try harder,” he says. “I want to make an excellent dish that looks great.”   

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