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Who wants to work in foodservice? These 400 eager teens

Photograph: Shutterstock

The foodservice industry’s future leaders converged on Washington, D.C., last week, proving that the business’ labor straits are the function of a short supply, not a dearth of talent, passion or dedication. No one had to tell the high school students gathered for the National ProStart Invitational—essentially a competition to find the top teenaged culinary and concept-development teams in the nation—that a life in restaurants may not be everyone’s dream.

Yet it’s the rare LeBron James wannabe who practices with more fervor than the youngsters in whites brought to their sautees and sauces. Few would-be Beyonces shimmy and croon with the enthusiasm of the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who whipped up dishes and concepts in D.C., deep in their happy place.

No, the restaurant industry may not be every young person’s career path. But the invitational’s field of 400 future chefs and managers seemed delighted—and certain—they’d found theirs. And the parents, educators and industry luminaries in the audience seemed as if they couldn’t be happier about that. It was as if the labor crisis was suspended for three days.

The ProStart program was begun by the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation in 1994 to introduce the industry to high school students who disdained school and the career paths pushed by guidance counselors. The industry realized the nonconformists might fall in love with a business that prized technical skills and creativity above solving for “x.” Two-year foodservice education programs were set up in six schools to offer the alternate path of learning through doing as well as listening in a classroom, hopefully deepening the industry’s talent pool in the process.

The initiative has grown to include 150,000 students in 1,900 high schools across all 50 states. The invitational is where the best of them get to flaunt their stuff and compete for $200,000 in scholarships for continuing their foodservice educations. They’re also exposed to potential future employers such as Sodexo, Marriott International, Golden Corral, Auntie Anne’s and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The students compete in teams in two contests: culinary, where they create a three-course meal in 60 minutes using two butane burners, without access to running water or electricity; and management, where the squad has to come up with the plan for a new concept.

The teams get to the invitational—the nationals, as the students call it—by winning their state competitions. The dishes prepared at the nationals were often what had earned the team a gold in their state, making the competition a menu contest as well as a test of prep and presentation skills. Similarly, the management teams presented a concept and design they had brainstormed before getting to Washington.

“They lost a teammate—she couldn’t come, and that upset them. But that's real life." —Stacy Roof, CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association

Both competitions echo ProStart’s emphasis on recreating real-world conditions and learning from practical experience. The management contenders, for instance, were asked questions such as how many emergency exits had been included in their designs. How many shifts were they planning, and how many employees would be needed for each? What would be the flow of customers and food?

“Sorry to say this, but the manager’s office you include in your concept seems large, and there’s no return on that investment,” one judge remarked to a team. They responded that the space would be used by a director of operations who’d be handling such additional functions as catering, so the space seemed appropriate to them.

The realities of the business weren’t tempered in the culinary competition, either. One of the judging criteria was how adeptly the competing teams managed food costs. And the youngsters weren’t spared any of the pressure they’d feel as kitchen pros. A spectating father who’s also a chef remarked that he’d been to the nationals eons ago himself—and never faced a stiffer, more pressured experience in his career, be it in a restaurant or a professional competition. 

The Kentucky team had been a little jittery the morning they were scheduled to cook. “They lost a teammate—she couldn’t come, and that upset them,” said Stacy Roof, CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association (KRA) and acting head of that state’s ProStart program. “But that’s real life.”

The KRA picked up all of the team’s travel expenses, sparing the teens from having to fundraise in addition to practicing. Not every squad was as fortunate. They had to learn the fundamentals of raising money, too.

It wasn’t as if the Kentuckians needed another thing to fret about.

“They’re excited, and they’re nervous,” said Angie Crawford, the mother of a girl competing for the state. As the official “team mother,” she confessed to feeling some of that anxiety herself. She had to ensure all uniforms were clean and sharp. “And getting them all the same shirts—that was tough,” she said.

Kentucky was not one of the teams that won the scholarship funds provided by Golden Corral, the Burger King McLamore Foundation and several of the industry’s largest suppliers, including The Coca-Cola Co., Ecolab, McLane and Savor. A number of college-level culinary schools also offered prize money in the form of tuition assistance.

But watching her daughter compete, Crawford could see a clear career path for her daughter, whether she won or not. The girl already had plans to attend Johnson & Wales University in Miami, where she’d also intern, and then cook in New York City and Belgium.

“One day she wants to have her own restaurant,” she said.

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