Cooking up contest for high-school chefs

JOB WELL-DONE: Rafael Alvarez, a student at Exeter Job Corps Academy and sous chef for Team Passion in the Rhode Island ProStart competition, prepares a dish for the contest at the Radisson Hotel Providence Airport in Warwick.
COURTESY EXETER JOB CORPS ACADEMY JOB WELL-DONE: Rafael Alvarez, a student at Exeter Job Corps Academy and sous chef for Team Passion in the Rhode Island ProStart competition, prepares a dish for the contest at the Radisson Hotel Providence Airport in Warwick.

Kevin Millonzi, owner of Millonzi’s Bar and Grille in West Warwick, is always on the lookout for good cooks, but finding professional kitchen talent can be as challenging as making a quality Hollandaise.
So when Millonzi sampled the dishes prepared by the 28 students entered in Rhode Island’s first-ever ProStart cooking competition in February, it crossed his mind that someday maybe they might be working for him.
“Finding good cooks is definitely challenging – there is a work pool but a lot of people unmotivated to work,” Millonzi said. “These kids were very impressive.”
Organized by the National Restaurant Association, the National ProStart Invitational is designed to teach and motivate high-school-age students in culinary programs across the country to improve their skills.
Bringing the competition to Rhode Island has long been on the agenda of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, but the cost and resources involved in hosting a state tournament here have been a barrier.
This year, national restaurant supplier US Foods provided a $5,000 sponsorship for the event, while the Radisson Hotel in Warwick donated the space to host the competition.
In a contest of seven teams, four students from the Exeter Job Corps Center in Exeter finished first and on April 27 will fly to Baltimore to take on 42 teams from across the country in the national competition.
“It encourages people that you can come into the industry for one year or a career,” said Rhode Island Hospitality Association President and CEO Dale Venturini. “It is not just cooking. It is showing people that there is a bigger picture to running a restaurant.”
In the ongoing effort to create jobs and build the economy, the restaurant and hospitality industries often take a back seat to the technology sector and other areas known for big salaries.
But with hospitality the fourth-largest employer in Rhode Island and one of the few sectors expected to grow throughout the country in the next decade, industry and political leaders say failing to train a skilled, culinary workforce would be a missed opportunity for the state.
“The hospitality industry employs more than 60,000 residents and some of those may be in the entry level, but a significant amount are high-paying jobs,” said Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., who visited the contest winners at Exeter Job Corps this month. “We know tourism is one of the top industries for the state and nation and we need people to do this job. An executive chef can make $90,000 a year.” Along with highlighting the importance of culinary training, Langevin used the competition as a chance to push for restored funding for federal Perkins grants that pay for career training and equipment in fields that include hospitality.
Before 2010, when $140 million was cut from the program, the grants were used to pay for things such as kitchen equipment for a culinary program at Coventry High School and at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Although food service is still one of the industries with opportunities for people who don’t have extensive specialized training, Venturini points out that there is also a strong need for workers to fill those culinary tasks that do require specific skills and a career-minded approach.
“The hard jobs are in the back of the house, because it is a skill,” Venturini said. “You have to have a special person to work in the kitchen. A lot of my members said they are having trouble filling those jobs. This gives the students a leg up when they get out of school.”
Based on the enthusiasm displayed at the February competition, the Hospitality Association intends to make Rhode Island’s entry in the ProStart competition annual and expects the number of schools involved will likely increase next year.
“I’d love to build it with more teams and more students,” said Heather Singleton, senior vice president for education at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association.
In addition to the cooking, the national ProStart contest also includes a restaurant-management component that Singleton said Rhode Island Hospitality would like to offer next year. The management contest asks contestants to plan a concept restaurant with market research, a dining-room layout, menu and staff uniform.
At Exeter Job Corps, a federally run technical academy, the mood has been jubilant since their Team Phoenix won first place and has been preparing for the national contest.
“Our students are still on cloud nine,” said Linda Soderberg, deputy director of the Exeter Job Corps Center.
At his restaurant and catering business in West Warwick, Millonzi hopes more students do follow the lead of the students at Job Corps.
“It reminded me of my days in culinary school,” Millonzi said about the competition. “I think those kids [from Job Corps] are going to do well in the future.” •

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