They can handle the heat, so they test their skills in the kitchen.
Curry-crusted Gulf shrimp, braised pork and red velvet pan cakes won four high school students a trip to a national cooking competition in Baltimore, Md. thanks to the ProStart program, an educational opportunity teaching students real-world culinary skills.
ProStart, a part of Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation, is taught at more than 40 schools across Louisiana. Schools can sign up to be involved. Coming together to compete, students from 19 schools flaunted their culinary masterpieces in a heated statewide competition. Students Jacquita Jolley, Julia LaSalle, Edna Phares and Chantal Quillen won Hammond High Magnet School’s sixth consecutive win by preparing a three-course meal in 60 minutes.
“[They] try to make it as close to the national competition as possible,” said Patricia Johnson, Hammond High’s ProStart team leader. “Every year there’s more and more creativity. And, they’ve done a really great job in creating a legitimate opportunity for these kids. It’s not like it’s something someone created that would be fun to do. It’s more than that.”
Johnson said the ProStart curriculum is a two-year commitment, so it is not for everyone. However, she adds that it’s too great of an opportunity to pass up for some food-minded students because it offers them a door into a real-world kitchen.
“I think it has given them a sense of accomplishment and opportunity to do something that they would not normally do,” Johnson said.
The educational program is more than just for the students; ProStart is for the Louisiana community, LRAEF Executive Director Alice Glenn said.
“We’re very excited about preserving the culinary heritage and culture of Louisiana,” Glenn said. “We think it’s really important for Louisiana students and the next generation of restaurant industry leaders to be trained here…to carry on our unique traditions.”
Carrying out these traditions is no easy task for these teen chefs. They meet regularly to practice their mincing and dicing, to learn safety procedures and to prepare the menu for the competition.
“Do we practice? Oh yes, we practice,” Johnson said, laughing. “You put kids in a high pressure situation unprepared, and they don’t come out as successful. The more prepared you are. The better success you have.”
The competition requires students to hone their skills in cutlery. Judges docked points if the chefs touched their faces or hair while cooking, or leaving their work-station untidy, ProStart reported on their website.
These points add up when scholarships are on the line. Competing students crafted gourmet three-course meals to win a share of $872,000 in culinary scholarship dollars and the attention of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, the foundation reported.
The attention can be beneficial to students, seeing how critical the food industry is to Louisiana. The restaurant industry provides 200,000 jobs, and the businesses are expected to generate sales of $6.8 billion in 2013, a statement reported by Louisiana Restaurant Association said.
The ProStart program was designed to challenge and encourage students’ interest in culinary arts. It allows students the skill set necessary to go straight into the food industry, Glenn said.
“The curriculum is fairly stringent,” Johnson said. “This is not a program for kids who can’t see fit. It’s a lot of work. This is not a program where you can just throw kids in and expect them to do well.”
From converting a recipe to serve hundreds to understanding the chemistry behind cooking, Glenn said the lessons taught in ProStart crossover to other areas in school, like math and science.
“There’s a lot of different academic fields that we thought were a little more fun through the lens of cooking,” Glenn said. “It’s relatable.”
ProStart is one example of increasing coalitions between schools and the outside workforce. Superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor said in an interview with Baton Rouge Business Report that creating relationships with local businesses is a main goal for him to improve East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
“These are interest areas that our students have, but these interest areas also coincide with the future economic development…in the Greater Baton Rouge area,” Taylor said.
And, this development may involve more females in the industry. Glenn said she was excited to see so more women involved in ProStart, cooking their way into Louisiana’s food industry.
“You don’t currently see a whole lot of women in leadership positions in our industry whether it’s in the kitchen or owners and operators,” Glenn said.
Hammond High Magnet School’s winning team happened to be made of 4 young women.
“It’s all about giving these students an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I want to give them a chance to succeed.”