Lettering in Food

The TRA Brings Cooking Back to School

Remember fellow students who secretly wanted to take Home Economics in high school but feared ridicule? Kids today don’t have that problem, at least not if they go to a school that offers Texas ProStart. Run by the educational arm of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), the program makes cooking cool in school, even for the most jaded teen. “Sometimes I kick myself, thinking, ‘Why didn’t they have ProStart when I was in high school?” says Steph Smith, the director of development at TRA. 

The National Restaurant Association dreamed up ProStart in 1994 as a series of classes ready-made for any high school that had some basic industrial kitchen equipment and a willingness to arm teenagers with chef knives. Individual state restaurant associations that operate under the nonprofit’s umbrella run their own tailored ProStart programs, and, shock of shockers, Texas ProStart is the biggest—boasting more than 240 participating high schools and 25,000 students each year.

Geared toward training students in the culinary arts and restaurant management (as opposed to simply honing homemaking skills), the Texas Education Agency-approved class counts as a credit and draws in students by adding a certain “Top Chef” pizzazz to what might otherwise become humdrum homework to the adolescent mind. Each year, ProStart students unite as a school team, and combine their collective cooking skills to compete against other schools. Team members organize as they might in a professional kitchen—filling the roles of chef, sous-chef and so on—to cook a complete meal in 50 minutes before a panel of judges. 

After clashing cutlery against other teams in regional meets, the winners have a shot at going on to national competitions. Students may also compete in a restaurant management context by giving a presentation about their business plans for a restaurant concept before a panel of experts. Smith says that last year, Texas became the first state ever to take first place in restaurant management and third place in culinary arts at the national showdown. To ensure everybody has a chance to compete, the program has beefed up its scholarships to help send less-advantaged students to the meets.

The classes also enlist the expertise of restaurant-industry pros to serve as mentors, such as Mike Erickson, a chef who teaches at Burnet High School, in Burnet. “Texas ProStart is great for introducing the next generation to extensive career opportunities in the food world while learning from professionals and hearing their stories and wisdom,” he says. 

One member of this generation, Valerie Tarver, a sophomore at Burnet, agrees. “Having the experience of working in the kitchen every day with my peers has taught me how to handle stress and maintain a positive attitude in tough situations,” she says. “The program has opened so many opportunities for me now and in the future. I can’t wait to get out there and put my skills to the test.”

By Steve Wilson. For more information, visit texasprostart.com.