DINING Dining and Nightlife

Culinary Pursuits

ProStart gives kids 
a head start 
in the world of food
The Cooking Chanel and the Food Network have made cooking cool. Shows like the Iron Chef, Boy Meets Grill and Hungry Girl, to name just a few, have made television chefs rock stars. Even for those who don’t like to watch the shows, chefs like Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen and Emeril Lagasse have household names!

However, those who do tune into the programs are entranced with the glamorous lives the hosts seem to lead. In “real life,” however, the life of a chef isn’t quite as enchanting as it appears to be on TV.

The real life of an executive chef can be all consuming. There are few weekends off and, certainly, no such thing as a 40-hour work week. On a daily basis, cooking becomes almost a sideline because of the other work that must be done. Executive chefs are responsible for managing the kitchen, ordering food, menu planning, training, hiring and firing staff. Like in any field, success takes hard work, talent and passion.

For a chef, success also means having a developed palate, a broad curiosity about food, in general, and training – whether it be working in a neighborhood restaurant or attending Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School in Paris.

With that in mind, the National Restaurant Association, through its educational foundation, began ProStart, a nationwide two-year program for high school students that “develops the best and brightest talent into tomorrow’s industry leaders.” Students learn culinary techniques as well as management skills and gain hands-on experience by working at least 400 hours in the industry. In the end, they receive a ProStart National Certificate of Achievement that signifies they are well qualified to enter the industry workforce.

Nationally, ProStart includes 90,000 students in more than 1,700 schools across 47 states. What’s more, statistics have shown that five years after earning the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement and competing in the National ProStart Invitational, 81 and 78 percent of students, respectively, are still studying or working in the industry. In Colorado, the curriculum is currently taught in 27 high schools to more than 650 students and provides scholarship and employment opportunities.

Fortunately, students living in the valley are given the opportunity to experience ProStart at Battle Mountain High School where the program is flourishing! Out of 12 annual Colorado ProStart Invitationals, the school has won first place at the state event seven times. And the school has ranked in the top 10 for the ten years that the event has been held nationally.  Two of those wins were second place medals and, in 2007, they won the championship.

Nobody could be more proud of the team’s accomplishments than ProStart and Culinary teacher Sharon Wible who, by chance, began teaching the program.

“I was in Vail, visiting my husband, who had begun working here, “ explains Wible. “We met a man who said that his best friend was retiring and that someone was needed to take her position. Although I had only had a couple of cooking classes, I did have a degree in family consumer studies with a focus on nutrition and interviewed for the job. I was at the right place at the right time.”

“When I started teaching,” continues Wible, who has been with the school for nine years, “I was told that I was going to teach a class called ProStart, that there was a team competition and there was a mentor. And, to find out about the class, I should give the mentor a call.”

The mentor was Chef Paul Ferzacca, owner of La Tour Restaurant, who has guided the team for over 10 years and was awarded the Colorado Restaurant Association Education Foundation’s “Flame of Excellence” 
2010 award for his 10 years of working with Battle Mountain’s ProStart program.

“My nephew, Billy Ettawil, was in the ProStart program and asked me to be the mentor,” recalls Ferzacca. “He asked me to teach them how to cook a three-course meal. We won the state competition and then we went on to nationals, where we won second place. I’ve been with the class ever since.”

Chef Tom Walker, a private chef and caterer and former executive chef with the Marriott Corporation, began working with ProStart in 2007, the year the team won the nationals, when his son Ryan was on the team.

And Walker and Ferzacca complement each others coaching skills: Ferzacca handling the hands-on skills of a busy, fast-paced restaurant; Walker enforcing the cerebral way of handling the pressure.

The classroom/kitchen, with its huge inventory of pots, tools, storage areas and equipment, would be the envy of any restaurateur. Foundations of Restaurant & Culinary Arts and Food for Today, textbooks used for the classes cover every aspect of a career in the food industry from dressing for work and trends in technology, to storing and sanitation to nutrition. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“The program has several components,” says Wible. “The first component is the classroom, where students take Level 1 and Level 2. Work experience is the second component and students can, if they choose to, work with industry members around the valley. The third component is trying out for the culinary competition. By taking a national exam, all students are eligible to win a $2,000 scholarship. Students on the team compete for extra scholarships.”

According to Wible, tryouts for the team – an omelet competition – take place at the beginning of November when candidates are asked to fill out a form and include why they want to get on the team, what they’re goals are and what they’re interests are down the road.  Then students prepare and garnish their omelets, which have to meet a certain criteria for the judges.

“Once the team is chosen,” explains Wible, “we begin putting our menu together. The kids have to bring in 10 to 15 ideas of what they would like to cook. We then discuss each suggestion, paring it down, modifying this and that until we actually come up with a theme and a menu.”

No ovens or electronic tools are allowed in the competition. The team has to make their entire menu – a starter, entrée and dessert – using only two butane burners. And they have to make two of each course –  exactly the same. One for tasting and one for show. Students also have to submit a Menu Book that includes photos and worksheets for recipes, food costs, menu price and the procedure for cooking for each course

“Tom, Paul and I work very closely together,” says Wible. “Paul taught me everything about the competition, when I first began. I manage the logistics. Paul teaches the students all the skills the students need to learn. The cooking, the knife skills, etc.  He and Tom are terrific! Paul is here five days a week during practice time, from two to five hours each day.”

On most days, practice for the event begins at 5:45 a.m., before school begins at 8 a.m. Depending upon the work, practice resumes, once more, at 4 p.m. for about four more hours.

“The ProStart program is absolutely terrific,” says Ferzacca. “A lot of these kids who get on the teams would never be able to afford college nor do they have any direction as to what they want to do in life. So, now they have the money to go to culinary school and a direction in something that sparks their interest.”

Indeed, Jeffery Fuller, who was on last year’s Battle Mountain ProStart team and will, once again, try out for this year’s team, is a perfect example of the impact ProStart can have on an individual.

“Everything I know about food is what I’ve learned from Chef Paul, Chef Tom and Ms. Wible, says Fuller, who lives in Avon. “And taking that experience and going into a restaurant environment helps me out so much.

“I want to go to culinary school and then join the Marines. After I get out of the Marines, I want to open a restaurant and call it ‘Mama’s,’ because everybody loves mama’s home-cooked meals. And, I want to open a restaurant that gives people memories of home.”

Perhaps Emeril Lagasse says it best. “A successful career in the this industry is like making a gumbo. It takes patience, passion, experimentation and a positive attitude. My advice to you is to work hard and bring your unique talents and personality into the operation everyday. If you respect the history and art of cooking, you’re well on your way to becoming an industry leader.”

ProStart competitions are not only exciting, but also expensive. For information on how 
you can help, please contact Sharon Wible 
at or