Last month, the 13th annual Illinois ProStart® Invitational, was hosted by the Illinois Restaurant Association at Kendall College. High school teams from across the state competed for culinary and hospitality management titles. It was also the second year in a row the Elgin High School Culinary Team won the management part of the competition.
What is Pro Start?
ProStart® is an educational foundation program of the National Restaurant Association. It is a two-year curriculum plan that combines classroom learning and real-life experience aimed to skill build, develop talent and spur future restaurant and foodservice leaders. Over 90,000 students from 1,700 high schools in 47 states currently participate in the program, including students from U.S. Military bases and in Guam.
One of the core elements to this program is its working relationship between industry and education. It is the hands on support from restaurant and hospitality professionals, food service companies, suppliers and state level restaurant associations in tandem with educators that provide this recipe for success.
The Hospitality Management part of the competition consists of developing a restaurant concept from scratch. Students analyze local demographics, develop marketing initiatives, design interiors, create menus and literally everything else that goes into launching and operating a restaurant. They have to prepare a 10 minute presentation for culinary teachers and professional chefs and field questions from the judging authorities.
The culinary part of the competition is equally challenging. Student teams have one hour to produce a three course meal (appetizer, entrée and dessert) for two, using only two portable camping oven/burners.
The Proof is in the Pudding
We asked the winning Elgin High School (EHS) team what they thought about the experience and knowledge they’ve gained from participating in their school’s culinary program and competitions. The team of four seniors had much to say – get ready, their enthusiasm is contagious and inspiring.
Yahaira Bonilla told us she learned how to work as a team and develop speaking skills because they had to present in front of teachers and professional chefs. She also learned how to use more computer skills and do a PowerPoint presentation. “I can take this somewhere – doing this made me think of going for culinary or hospitality management in college – it has kind of guided me. ”
Bonilla is also in the culinary program and feels the “hands on experience” has really helped her. “We have catering events outside of school and do a restaurant at school once a week.”
Louis Maldonado says he was “up and down” about getting involved because of the commitment level. “There are a lot of practices, and I took Food 1,2,3,4 [classes]. Ms. Leider gave me the opportunity to go to competitions, and it helped me. There is a lot of writing and thinking. I was introduced to the President of Rosati’s Pizza last year at the competition, and she gave me a summer job – ProStart® really helps. It’s great to see this industry; I am going into the hospitality side.”
Eduardo Rios says the program and competition experience made him put his English and school skills to the test. “It made things interesting for me. Running a restaurant has been so interesting – it made me think, ‘What are my opportunities in the future?’ Culinary Arts or Restaurant Management is what I think I want to do. With hospitality, I serve people and make people them happy – that is one of the most attractive things.”
Colin Flanagan echoed his teammates’ sentiments on learning and opportunity. “In the classroom we learn about food safety, how to cook things properly and what goes on in the background of a restaurant. I have friends that think this program is amazing because it gets you ready for college – they don’t have these kinds of classes at their schools. A lot of kids would just like to learn some basic cooking skills too.”
Learning from Those that Do
Equally refreshing, is the pride and positive energy the team’s teacher, Ann Leider, has for the program and her students. “We teach them all aspects of what goes into it and how to be successful in the industry,” she described. “They are exposed to all culinary – to its math, food costs, preparation, how to treat customers, front of house, back of house, safety, sanitation, how to keep employees happy …”.
If it sounds like Leider genuinely knows what she’s talking about, she does – Ann is also a culinary professional. She began working in restaurants as a young teen, earned her degree in hospitality, worked as a line cook, prep cook, café manager, and in catering and event planning.
Five years ago she was offered the opportunity to take over the program. “I am certified to teach hospitality,” she explained, “my certificate is based off my industry experience.” Leider is also taking classes at night to expand the status of her expertise.
Ann says she does the competitions “because it’s beneficial to the students.” She lets the student team set the hours and how much they want to practice. Her current team was dedicated to 3-4 hours after school and 8 hours on Saturdays.
In addition to the competitions, ProStart® also provides access to scholarships and job shadows. “We’ve done all day job shadows at TGI Fridays, Morton’s, Chili’s and Key Lime Cove.” Leider says a lot schools don’t have catering or hosting elements to their programs, curricula she’s equally proud of.
How does the Elgin in-school restaurant work? “Our culinary classroom is the restaurant.” On Thursdays, the students spend the last 3 periods of the day flipping their classroom into a full serve restaurant, The Clumsy Chef. This week’s entrée of the day was Baked Tilapia Veracruz with Cilantro Lime Rice. Patrons can dine in or carry out.
School events and meetings also take place at the Clumsy Chef and catering is available: We cater anything from small box lunch meetings to continental breakfast for 100! Let us know your needs and budget, and we can work together to come up with the best options for you.
The culinary students rely on support from the faculty, student and parent populations for their restaurant and, successfully so as the Clumsy Chef is self-sustaining.
Leider’s culinary teams have consistently placed in the top three statewide positions, in one or both categories, over the last four years – for as long as they have been competing. That’s a remarkable track record, to say the least.
This May, the EHS team, will be competing at the National ProStart Invitational® in Minneapolis. Last year, the EHS team, placed 10th at nationals in Baltimore. Funds are currently being raised to send the team to this year’s national competition with proper supplies, uniforms and equipment.
Cash, gift cards and other items are needed for raffle fund raising efforts. Large donations will be recognized on the team’s competition shirts by company logo. (Buedel is helping the team out this year with a donation of steak gift boxes for their silent auction.) If you would like to lend support to the students, please contact Ann Leider (soon!) by phone at 630-400-4064 or by email: AnnLeider@u-46.org.
Good luck EHS!