4 minute read

Mentoring, real-world experiences give ProStart students the edge

Nebraska culinary team at 2019 ProStart Invitational.

Nebraska culinary team at 2019 ProStart Invitational.

Photo by ProStart

Exposure to restaurant industry role models, leaders help define ProStart student careers

By Rick Zambrano

In May, about 400 students descended on Washington, D.C. for the 2019 National ProStart Invitational (NPSI). The competition is organized by the National Restaurant Educational Foundation (NRAEF). ProStart is a comprehensive, classroom–to-work vocational program that trains students in the culinary arts and restaurant management.

State competitions determine winners who then get to compete at the national level at the ProStart Invitational. Students participating in the ProStart vocational program reap enormous benefits.Take Sharon Skutchan of Lincoln, Neb., for example: she is a teacher who accompanied Nebraska’s state champions on their trip to the national competition in D.C., and a former ProStart participant. Her experience as a student made her more grounded and a better leader, she says. Skutchan competed in both the culinary and management competitions in 2013.

Additionally, ProStart motivated Skutchan to become invested in learning. As a student, she spent three to four hours, two to three times per week on ProStart within the Milford Public High School system. Now, she teaches there, helping kids learn culinary skills and recipe formulation, and bringing the training she received full circle.

Vocational programs connect with students

It was a ProStart teacher and mentor, she says, who early on encouraged Skutchan come “out of her box.” This teacher helped her to develop more poise, confidence, and willingness to “go into kitchens.” Now a private caterer and chef, Skutchan benefits from ProStart initiatives at the state level in Nebraska. To give that back to the public school system within the ProStart environment is commendable. “I’ve found the most fun as being a mentor because I can watch the team work from beginning to end,” she says.

Sharon Skutchan, a ProStart mentor and previous student competitor.

Sharon Skutchan, a ProStart mentor and previous student competitor.

Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.

Two North Carolina students, Ky’ra Joyner and Micah Thomas, made the most of their experiences at ProStart. Joyner was part of her state’s management team presenting the Flippin Fire concept to judges at NPSI 2019. A key moment Joyner won’t easily forget is when a judge asked this: If the temperature is 66 degrees outside and the cooler stops working, and the temperature reads 41 inside the cooler, what do you do? She says students only heard the first part of the question and thought they should discard the shrimp, when in fact it was at the upper range of proper safe temperature. Under pressure, the management students had come to a decision too quickly.

Teaching resilience, real-life work examples, mentoring

Questions like these stay with students, teaching them to rise to challenges and develop quick thinking. Samuel Stanovich, president, Stanovich Hospitality Inc. and area representative, Northern Illinois Northwest Indiana Firehouse Subs, says exposure to the realities of restaurant careers is a main benefit of ProStart.

Stanovich’s involvement with ProStart has lasted for more than 15 years. “They have a better understanding of what it’s like to work in the industry,” he says, and they learn how “not to sugarcoat decisions.” His partners have helped train teams, contributed to ProStart mentoring, and hired ProStart students.

Micah Thomas, also competing on the North Carolina culinary team, was in charge of the appetizer: Shrimp Escabeche with spiced poached pear on top of crunch almond brittles. Thomas carefully served them over lavender panna cotta and salted caramel. Students learn to expect the unexpected. She says there wasn’t as much room for equipment as they would have liked, and the team had to improvise, taking more time for the mise en place.

While Joyner was competing for the first time, Thomas was competing for the second time at the state level. Both students say that teamwork is a big benefit of ProStart. Both also credit the program with helping them make connections with mentors and employers. Impressively, they each have already earned a scholarship to Johnson & Wales that can be used at the Charlotte campus. Thomas is preparing to enter the school’s program for Pastry Arts. The trajectory of each ProStart program centers around the state restaurant associations. Mandy Hines, director of hospitality and education for the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), works with the North Carolina ProStart program and says there have been many successes working with restaurant chain executives. In the work that the NCRLA has done, they have found success with positioning the program as a pipeline for future workers. Hines suggests this message resonates with North Carolina-based hospitality companies.

The NCRLA has secured significant sponsorship over the years. In fact, sponsors have helped North Carolina students get started with their careers; assisted with the team’s trip to D.C. for the ProStart Invitational; and helped them obtain supplies, other resources and financial gifts. For example, sponsors provided the team’s travel bags students took to the nation’s capital for the competition.

Developing a mutually-beneficial relationship

ProStart management and culinary competing teams at NPSI 2019.

ProStart management and culinary competing teams at NPSI 2019.

Photo by ProStart.

Students benefit broadly from the softer skills, including customer service, PR and learning to speak professionally, notes Hines. Although expected as a part of being immersed in a culture of hospitality, this softer skill set can also start to mold a culinary or restaurant management student into a complete professional.

Loyalty is another way that restaurant chains benefit from involvement in ProStart, Hines suggests. ProStart program students are not only employees, they’re also customers— potentially for a lifetime. Companies, like Brinker, Golden Corral and Marriott embrace ProStart, accompanied by the following and goodwill ProStart creates. Companies like these have led the charge in North Carolina and have seen “the potential that the program could have,” she says.