Each year, the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation (LRAEF) hosts teams across the state in its annual ProStart Student Invitational. This year, 27 teams took part in either the Culinary Competition or the Management Competition. For some schools, this was the first time they made the trip to New Orleans for the two-day events. This was the second of a multi-year relationship with the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, the competition’s title sponsor, and was represented by Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, who addressed the students, teachers and parents during the awards ceremony. Teams in both competitions had to incorporate Louisiana seafood into their menus.
For Fontainebleau’s ProStart instructor Stacy Russell, this is the first time she prepared students for competition. She came to Fontainebleau after 15 years in the restaurant industry, having worked for the Taste Buds restaurant group, whose concepts include Zea Rotisserie & Grill, Semolina Restaurant and Mizado Cocina.
“Teaching the ProStart students in the classroom takes the same management techniques as those I used every day in a restaurant,” Russell said. “The great thing about coming into this position is I can give them a real world account of restaurant operations.”
Preparing for the culinary competition takes mentoring and practice. Matt Jones, a graduate from American Institute, and currently with the Besh Restaurant Group, consulted with the Fontainebleau team on their menu. Some items didn’t make the cut with the students.
“Early on the students were considering seared redfish and smoked tuna,” Russell added. “The team finally settled on pepper seared tuna steak, a pan seared duck breast and panna cotta for their three courses.”
“We practiced twice a week for three hours over the course of six weeks to perfect our organization, communications and time management,” said Brianna Alongi, Fontainebleau ProStart II student. “This process really forces us to work as a team and that is such a valuable experience.”
During the Culinary competition, judges monitor and score the team’s organization and teamwork, time management and safety and sanitation. Barry Blue, a retired registered sanitarian with 30 years of experience, carefully reviews all aspects of the team’s dishes and has participated as a judge for several years.
“Personal hygiene, cross contamination and sanitation are the three main areas I’m looking at when judging,” Blue said. “These teams are highly trained in these areas as ServSafe methods and techniques are used in their coursework and preparation.”
Lakeshore’s winning menu included a crab stuffed avocado served over a bed of arugula, topped with a tangy vinaigrette, which wowed the judges.
“This is a beautiful technique, perfectly executed and the amount of crabmeat inside was just perfect,” said Randy Cheramie, Executive Director at the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls.
Lakeshore Culinary team was led by instructor Judy Achary and students Matthew Bertucci, Yenifer Fuentes, Alma Hagans, Hunter Trahan and alternate, Tatiana Joseph. The second place team was West Feliciana High School in St. Francisville, led by instructor Amy Dreher and students Elizabeth Ritchie-Fudge, Zachary Lester, Amanda Mangham and Ian Moreau. The third place team was Ascension Parish- Dutchtown High School in Geismar, led by instructor Traci Martin and students Haley Thompson, Kyong Soo Han, Tyler Moore, Kathryn Sappe and alternate, Autumn Lee.
This year, to recognize the various teams beyond just the top three teams, the judges picked teams that stood out above the rest in the following areas to receive awards: Knife Skills: Hammond High Magnet School; Safety & Sanitation: Slidell High School; Judges’ Pick- Appetizer: West Feliciana High School, with a fried softshell crab, tomato confit and arugula sandwich, with fried capers and cornichon mustard; Judges’ Pick-Entrée: Salmen High School, with a prepared seared Louisiana Gulf trout, with sautéed green beans and a root vegetable hash, topped with a classic Meuniere sauce; and Judges’ Pick-Dessert: Mandeville High School with a New Orleans bread pudding layered with vanilla-poached Louisiana strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, finished with freshly whipped cream.
The courses chosen by the judges will be interpreted and served to the guests at the LRAEF’s annual Five Star Future Gala, Saturday, August 2, 2014 at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside.
On day two, the competition switches gears from the culinary aspect of the restaurant business to the management side. Participating teams in the Management Competition demonstrated their knowledge of the restaurant and foodservice industry by developing a new restaurant concept proposal, creating a visual display, delivering a verbal presentation to a panel of judges and applying critical thinking skills to challenges managers face in day-to-day operations.
“The culinary side of the business gets more recognition in mainstream media, no doubt,” said Phil de Gruy of Phil’s Grill in Metairie and New Orleans. “The management side, creating concepts and developing menus, has always been more exciting for me. Seeing the concepts the ProStart Management teams come up with is always impressive.”
Take 2, a family restaurant, serving American cuisine inspired by some of America’s favorite movies, by Hammond High Magnet School, took first place in the Management Competition. Paying homage to Louisiana as “Hollywood South,” incorporates movie themes into the design of the restaurant as part dining room, part movie theater and special menus.
The winner of the Management Competition was Hammond High Magnet School, led by instructor Angie Drago and students Todreion Amos, Sarah Davis, Courtney Edwards, Julia Lassalle and alternate, Jemario Rheams. The second place team was North Vermilion High School in Maurice, led by instructor Phyllis Bonhagen and students Sydney Thibodeaux, Lane Broussard, Jessica Doiron, Jamie Montet and Lindsey Morris. The third place team was Rayne High School, led by instructor Kandice Dequeant and students Phillip Broussard, Alyssa Billings and Natalie Breaux.
Hammond High Magnet School’s ProStart team also represented Louisiana at the National ProStart Competition, May 3-5, 2014 in Minneapolis.
The judge’s also picked their standouts in the Management Competition. The Judges’ Award for Restaurant Concept when to Donaldsonville High School, with a double decker restaurant tour bus; Judges’ Award for Critical Thinking: Slidell High School; Judges’ Award for Visual Display: Sulphur High School; and the Judges’ Award for Verbal Presentation: Fontainebleau High School.
The top three teams in the Culinary and Management competitions collectively received more than $1.2 million in scholarship opportunities to the nation’s leading institutions, such as Culinary Institute of America, Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, Johnson & Wales and Le Cordon Bleu, among others.
“It’s clear by amount of scholarship dollars awarded by such high caliber culinary schools, that Louisiana and our ProStart program is highly regarded in the world of cuisine,” said Stan Harris, LRA President/CEO. “We are so often told that our Louisiana students understand how to use fresh Louisiana seafood and how to use seasoning to layer flavors and that is a tremendous compliment.”
Educators are the key to the ProStart programs success in Louisiana. With roughly half of them coming from industry and the other half education, what they do to prepare these students, not only for competition, but for jobs and ultimately careers in the industry is truly remarkable.
“To see the camaraderie among the ProStart teachers in Louisiana is really great,” said Greg Beachey, National ProStart Program Manager. “They are so happy to see each other, share experiences and collaborate and that’s evident in the students’ performance in the competition.”
The LRAEF hosts two ProStart Teacher training events annually—one in the summer and one during the winter break. The training events are intensive with workshops designed to further educate the teachers on culinary techniques from notable Louisiana chefs. In turn, the teachers can better prepare their students. Nearly all of the teachers participate in both.
“Just as important as having great ProStart teachers, is having the LRAEF team and our members working diligently to support the program, through additional education, member engagement, fundraising efforts and sponsorships,” added Harris.
The 2014 LRAEF Louisiana Seafood ProStart Student Invitational Sponsors include: Louisiana Seafood, Acme Oyster House, Auto-Chlor Services, Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, Performance Foodservice Caro, Atmos Energy, Louisiana Culinary Institute, Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, Raising Cane’s, Louisiana Gas Association, Whole Foods, Entergy, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s “Sea of Hope,” Centerplate, Coca-Cola, Community Coffee, Custom Apparel, Ecolab, Freeman Decorating, Generations Hall and the New Orleans Morial Convention Center.
ProStart is a two-year comprehensive culinary management course for juniors and seniors in high school with two primary outcomes: to prepare students for higher education and to train students to go directly to work in Louisiana’s foodservice industry. The LRAEF pairs ProStart students and LRA members together in a mutually-beneficial relationship. Students are required to complete a 400-hour work internship, thus providing hands-on training. Many of LRA members serve as mentors to ProStart students.