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Food networking: At ProStart competition, high schoolers out to show they're ready for industry

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Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association.
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. - ()

Sautéed salmon with succotash. Perfectly cooked filet mignon. Chocolate-strawberry banana-mint mousse.

This is no menu from Bravo network’s “Top Chef”: These dishes were created by New Jersey high school students competing for scholarships, national recognition and, most importantly, jobs in the Garden State.

Nearly 80 high school students from four New Jersey counties participated in this year’s 11th annual New Jersey ProStart Invitational last week at the Culinary Conference Center at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City.

Participants were not only vying for college scholarships, but the chance to represent their state at the 16th annual National ProStart Invitational in April in Charleston, South Carolina.

Last year, New Jersey teams placed in the Top 15 in both the national culinary and hospitality management competitions.

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said she hopes the ProStart program and its invitational will help to bring more culinary workers into the industry — and keep them in the state.

“The program, which grew to reach nearly 140,000 students nationwide in 2016, graduates students proficient in knife cuts and basic costing, as well as something even more valuable: professional development,” she said. “Critical thinking, teamwork, dependability, professionalism and time management are skills that will serve ProStart participants for the rest of their lives, in any career they choose.”

ProStart, a nationally recognized two-year career and technical educational program focused on culinary arts and restaurant management fundamentals, brings real-world experience to more than 2,000 junior and senior high school students in 21 high schools around the state.

Culinary student competitors from Passaic County Technical Institute work under a time constraint to create dishes to be judged.
Culinary student competitors from Passaic County Technical Institute work under a time constraint to create dishes to be judged.

Investing in vo-tech
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said vocational and technical schools are underfunded and underacknowledged.
“Whether it is culinary or hospitality management, or any other trade, I think we have an opportunity as a state to do better,” she said.
C.J. Reycraft Jr., award-winning chef and owner of Butcher Block Burgers in Westfield and the Amuse concept, agreed.
“Whether it is culinary or automotive or heating and air conditioning, there are a ton of jobs in those areas that don’t require four-year college degrees,” he said. “For example, while I may have hated school, when I became hands-on in culinary school, it just clicked.
“My learning ability was so much greater because it kept me interested. And there are a lot of kids out there that the typical classroom setting does not work for — we should be trying to reach out to those kids that this kind of experiential learning would help.”

It currently is the only homegrown educational program that acts as a workforce development program for the state’s $16 billion restaurant industry.

And, in conjunction with the New Jersey Restaurant Educational Foundation, it is the only culinary competition in the state that partners with more than nine colleges and universities, including Fairleigh Dickinson University and the Culinary Institute of America, to provide nearly $1.5 million in scholarships and college credits to placing teams.

This year, those teams — judged by many of the state’s top chefs and restaurateurs — included students from Passaic County Tech, Mercer County Tech, West Caldwell Tech and Kearny High School.

The top culinary team, from Passaic County Tech, and the top hospitality management team, from Bergen Academy, will represent the Garden State in April’s nationwide competition against the other 49 states and three additional territories.

The rules are no easy thing to follow.

In the culinary competition, students must create two plates each of a complexly flavored three-course meal in one hour, using only two butane burners and cutlery.

C.J. Reycraft Jr., award-winning chef and owner of Butcher Block Burgers in Westfield and the Amuse concept, judged this year’s competition for the second time, after joining the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s board of directors.

“The students are judged on degree of difficulty, organizational skills, cleanliness, teamwork and how their recipes taste,” Reycraft said. “For example, this year, one student” — Estefany Galdamez, a junior from West Caldwell Tech — “made a passion fruit tartlet that was perfectly cooked in a makeshift oven that was literally a metal box around a butane burner.

“Some of these techniques I didn’t learn until I had been working in the industry for five years.”

Paramus High School students Dominique Petruzzella, a senior, and Brian Zahabian, a junior, competed against each other in the culinary competition after the school sent two competing teams.

“Ever since I was little, I have been obsessed with cooking and baking,” Petruzzella said. “I came to school and saw the class and said, ‘That is definitely for me.’”

Student competitors created dishes to be judged at the New Jersey ProStart competition in Jersey City.
Student competitors created dishes to be judged at the New Jersey ProStart competition in Jersey City.

Women-dominated competition
While the culinary industry is predominantly male, C.J. Reycraft Jr., award-winning chef and owner of Butcher Block Burgers in Westfield and the Amuse concept, said it seemed as though more female high school students than males participated in the 11th annual New Jersey ProStart Invitational in Jersey City last week.
“There were two teams that were entirely made up of women, and I don’t believe that there was a single team without a woman,” he said.
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, also said there was a decent gender mix of judges, mentors and chefs present, including Marilyn Schlossbach, CEO of the Marilyn Schlossbach Group and owner of Labrador Lounge in Normandy Beach and Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park; Nancy Laird, co-owner and operator of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham; and Amy Russo Harrigan, owner of Toast in Montclair, Asbury Park and Red Bank.  Additionally, Leslie Steele, educational foundation director for the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, is one of the main reasons why the ProStart program has grown as it has, Halvorsen said.
“Leslie lives and breathes ProStart. That is her life’s mission,” Halvorsen said. “She has grown the program from where we had six schools to now 21.
“Therefore, I push very hard to make sure that not just our schools but also our Legislature, our governor, and our future governors know how important this program is.”

“I’m here because I wanted to learn about the food industry and how a restaurant should be run,” Zahabian said.

Brianna McCarthy, a senior from Kearny High School, represented her team in the management competition, in which students must create and pitch an original restaurant concept, including a business plan, budget, design and layout, menu, marketing plan and timeline to present to a panel of judges acting as potential investors.

For McCarthy, the ProStart course and the competition has meant the world.

“I experienced a house fire last year in January,” she said. “I was learning world cuisine in a basics cooking class at the time, and going to cooking class was the only thing that kept me in school and gave me hope that things were going to get better — that my future was brighter than what it seemed at the moment.”

Her team’s concept, All Star Noodle Bar, was inspired by the current buzz around ramen, she said.

“Our chef-driven menu provides the best of both worlds between affordable Asian and American cuisine,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy, who works part time at Red White & Que Smokehouse in Kearny, will attend the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University next year.

Working in a restaurant before or after school will give students an advantage if they choose to attend college, Steve Blair, culinary admissions representative for Johnson & Wales University, said.

“I highly recommend to students that they get a part-time job busing tables or washing dishes to see what it is like behind the scenes in the kitchen of a restaurant,” he said.

Blair’s counterpart, Delainey Currier, said it is sometimes obvious which students have either consistently practiced for the competition or have prior restaurant experience.

“The color and flavor combinations that these students put together is something that you will not often see at the high school level,” she said.

That is why ProStart students are often recruited and hired right away, Halvorsen said.

“I often say to these kids that what they are doing is more amazing that what a lot of their high school peers are doing — that the culinary and hospitality management programs within our schools are often some of the hardest because they require such a mature level of critical and creative thinking,” she said. “My goal is to make the ProStart program available to every high school student, because it is an opportunity to have a career without incurring four years of college debt or to sometimes even have the opportunity to go to college via scholarship.”

Reycraft stressed that, while the industry is not for the faint of heart, those with the passion and fortitude for the industry could develop highly successful careers.

Management student competitors from Keary High School present their restaurant concept to judges.
Management student competitors from Keary High School present their restaurant concept to judges.

Giving back
Jeanne Cretella, co-founder and president of Landmark Hospitality and this year’s chairwoman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the industry is just as exciting and dynamic as it was when she got involved 25 years ago.  
“And there is nothing more rewarding than being able to share our knowledge and our experiences with people who will one day lead this industry,” Cretella said. “Each and every student in this room has the opportunity to become the next ‘Top Chef’ or the next great restaurateur.”
Cretella was one of many New Jersey chefs and restaurateurs that dedicated their time and expertise to the students at the 11th annual New Jersey ProStart Invitational last Tuesday in Jersey City.
“Many of our students aspire to be C.J. Reycraft or David Burke or Jeanne Cretella,” Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said. “That is why it is so important for our association and our industry to give back in terms of internships, mentorship and outreach.
“We as an association see this program as an investment, because these kids are who Reycraft or Burke or Cretella are going to hire.”

“You have different cultures working together in kitchens where people are making $12 an hour running around like lunatics in 150-degree summer weather while getting yelled at in lots of different languages from Spanish to French to Creole without knowing what they did wrong,” he said. “But you are looking at a college dropout that has battled through drug and alcohol addiction. Through cooking and working hard, I was able to turn my life around.

“No matter what life has thrown at me and no matter what it will throw at you, you have to get up. The harder you get hit, the stronger you have to become.”

Such diversity is just one of the many reasons why every high school, Halvorsen said, should consider implementing ProStart classes.

“Our workforce is typically transient by nature as it is often a great industry to work in for college students or part-time parents or people in between careers. But because of that, there is turnover,” she said. “Support of ProStart is critical given that it clearly combats many problems our state faces: shortage of skilled workers, lack of career opportunities for youth and students’ soaring college debt.

“The fact that most of the 2,000 participating ProStart students statewide graduate ServSafe certified makes them immediately employable in our industry.”

Halvorsen sees the ProStart program not only as an investment in her industry but also in the state of New Jersey.

“They talk about the ‘brain drain’ from our state, but this program keeps people invested here,” she said. “These kids are our future entrepreneurs and employers, and if they are getting educated in this state, there is a good chance they will stay here and grow.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

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Meg Fry

Meg Fry


Meg Fry writes about women in business, millennials, food and beverage, manufacturing and retail. Meg joined NJBIZ with past production experience in the arts, film and television and continues to write and perform in theaters around the state. You may contact her at megf@njbiz.com.

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