Schools sharpen knives and skills in culinary, management competition
Two weeks ago, West Lyon students Easton Fleshman and Gabe TerWee were competing in front of parents and fans at the Iowa state wrestling tournament. Yesterday, they were back in the capital city looking to contend in a different type of high-level competition.
The High School Championships of Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management, known as the Iowa ProStart Invitational, welcomed around 40 high school students from across the state to the Iowa Events Center on Tuesday to test their food preparation, planning and management skills. Hosted by the Iowa Restaurant Association Education Foundation (IRAEF), the Iowa ProStart Invitational was split into two competitions for culinary arts and restaurant management and allowed students a hands-on opportunity to apply their learned skills.
“The Iowa ProStart Invitational gives students a chance to showcase what they’ve learned in classrooms, job shadows and internships and puts together all of the skills they’ve obtained through the Iowa ProStart program,” said May Schaben, IRAEF executive director. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the students who are able to network and receive positive feedback from restaurant industry leaders for the first time. It will be something that many of them will remember well into their futures.”
The Iowa ProStart program is a high school career program that focuses on developing future restaurant industry leaders. Over 1,400 Iowa students have participated in the program that provides an industry-related curriculum along with the development of other soft skills, such as organization, communication and workplace management.
The five-person West Lyon culinary team was ready to apply their learned skills at this year’s invitational competition. Fleshman and TerWee, both seniors, competed during the morning’s activities and were tasked with creating a three-course meal in an hour’s time. Resulting from weeks of planning, their team put together a gourmet meal of an Iowa pork chop with gravy and risotto, lemon-zested kale and wilted spinach salad and German chocolate truffles. Similar to their participation in athletics, these two, along with their teammates, prepared for the competition through dedicated, regular practice.
“I’ve learned a ton, and we’ve been practicing a lot,” Fleshman said. “Before this, I knew how to somewhat cook, but this is taking it to another level. We worked on getting the recipes down, using two burners in under 60 minutes and trying to make it as best as we can.”
Fleshman and TerWee agreed that the 60-minute cooking time was intense, likened to their experiences and challenges at the state wrestling tournament.
“It was kind of hectic,” TerWee said. “We were coming down to the last 30 seconds and were still plating, so it was definitely nerve wracking. It was a good competition.”
Their entry was reviewed by restaurant industry professionals and was judged on taste, knife skills, teamwork, safety and sanitation, menu and recipe development, costing and other factors. All teams participating in the invitational received extensive feedback, and the West Lyon team found the critiques and praise very useful.
“The feedback was huge,” Fleshman said. “It’s nice to know if you’re making a mistake and need to change how you’re doing your recipe. Maybe you don’t really know how good your food is either. It’s nice to hear that you’re doing a good job, too.”
After the completion of the culinary challenge, the Iowa ProStart Invitational switched its attention to the restaurant management competition. School teams pitched restaurant concepts to industry professionals and were judged on the business concept, menu, costing, layout and staffing, marketing ideas and critical thinking skills.
“For the management competition, student teams think of the judges as potential investors,” Schaben said. “They pitch their restaurant concept to the investors and answer questions to support their ideas.”
For both the culinary and management competitions, winning teams are crowned as state champions and move on to compete at the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C., in May. The top five national teams in both culinary arts and restaurant management are eligible to receive scholarships for postsecondary education.
“It would be an incredible experience to win,” Fleshman said. “We thought we did our best, and that’s all we can ask for. The results will take care of themselves.”
Past state invitational champions have included Waukee High School (2021) and the Waterloo Career Center (2020) for culinary arts and Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School (2021, 2020) for restaurant management.
Competitions like the Iowa ProStart Invitational can provide crucial, first-hand learning experiences and career exploration opportunities. Students can also meet with professionals within the industry and make important connections. And for West Lyon family and consumer sciences (FCS) instructor Kristin Rockhill, the Iowa ProStart Invitational was definitely more than just a contest for her students.
“The Iowa ProStart Invitational competition is the ‘capstone’ experience for students enrolled in the two-year curriculum backed by the National Restaurant Association,” she said. “The invitational is a hands-on test that puts their classroom knowledge into practice.”
Through this experience, Rockhill’s FCS and ProStart students, like Fleshman and TerWee, have worked closely with a master chef mentor to prepare for the competition and further explore the career field. Students have also been able to gain professional and life skills that can benefit them in any vocation.
“I’m interested in pursuing a business degree after high school,” TerWee said. “A lot of the things I’ve learned for this competition like costing, labor, building relationships and meeting health and safety standards can be used for the business industry, too.”
At the end of the event, the 2022 Iowa ProStart Invitational named Hampton-Dumont High School as the winner of both the culinary arts competition and the restaurant management challenge.
Although the West Lyon team did not win in their first ProStart competition, TerWee and Fleshman have learned valuable, professional skills that they can use at Wayne State College and the University of Iowa, respectively, in the fall and in their future careers.
“I’m glad that I did it,” TerWee said. “I’ve picked up a lot of stuff that will be valuable to me later in life.”