ThunderRidge High School senior Hailey Howell’s hands shook while she and her teammates competed in the annual Colorado ProStart Invitational cooking competition. The seven-student team had an hour in which to combine an estimated 60 ingredients into a three-course meal pleasing to both eyes and taste buds.
“The worst part was taking the plates to the judges,” Howell said. “Something could shift or you could fall.”
The plates bearing pan-seared fish tacos, bison with blueberry sauce and ginger snap tuile not only made it safely to the judges’ table, but past their approving palates. The ThunderRidge team took first place overall during the March 1 event at Denver’s Johnson & Wales University.
The honor is a feather in the cap of a 3-year-old Douglas County School District program that draws students from throughout the county and adjacent districts.
The ProStart hospitality program, created by the Colorado Restaurant Association Education Foundation, the Colorado Restaurant Association, and the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association, is a two-year curriculum offered in 29 high schools. As a magnet program, it’s open to students from other schools.
Teachers Katy Waskey and Aryann Roberts divide the curriculum, which draws a 50/50 mix of students intent on a culinary-related career and those who view it as a fun, practical elective. Students learn about business management, presentation, nutrition and marketing, and also can earn college credit, serve internships and become eligible for scholarships.
It’s a long way from the home economics classes of days gone by.
“I think the popularity of the Food Network and all the culinary competitions shined a light on the fact that food can be an art form,” Waskey said. “We also emphasize the culinary piece as project-based learning.”
Senior Christian Walker sees the class as a way to hone a lifelong talent.
“I had a separate career plan before I came into class,” said Christian Walker, who wants to work as a graphic designer or computer coder. “It has entered my mind that cooking is going to be a decent skill later in life for being healthy and taking care of yourself. And you could use it to impress.”
Madison Gillam, a member of the award-winning competition team, plans to minor in culinary arts and major in business.
“I plan on owning a restaurant later in life,” she said. Her first priority, however, is “having a family.”
Junior Megan Schmauder, who dices garlic with the speed and ease of a seasoned professional, doesn’t yet know how far she’ll take her interest in cooking.
“I’m considering it,” she said. “It would be a fun career.”
Walker credited the class for “a significant increase in skills” and appreciation for food.
“You pay more attention to detail,” he said. “You want to make it look nice as well as taste nice. You eat with your eyes first.”