District 214's ProStart program cooks up new culinary expertise

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By Kayleigh Padar

On the outside, it looks like a suburban high school. But inside, Buffalo Grove High School is home to The Bison Grill, a student-run restaurant that handles an average of 20 catering jobs a year for community outreach events, school meetings and professional luncheons that host local and state officials.

The Bison Grill is part of High School District 214's Culinary Arts Career Pathway, a series of courses that teach students the skills they need to pursue culinary and hospitality careers through a program called ProStart.   

ProStart is a two-year, national, college-level program designed by the National Restaurant Association to help educate high school students in the culinary field while giving them an opportunity to earn up to 12 hours of early college credit.

"I do believe ProStart helps in preparing you for the (food industry) lifestyle," says Trish Miller, a senior at John Hersey High School who is participating in ProStart at Buffalo Grove. "It is a lot of work, I will admit that, but it sets you up for success."

The program, which is open to all District 214 students and held at Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove and Rolling Meadows high schools, prepares students for jobs ranging from hotel and resort managers to chefs, head cooks and food service management.

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Students learn how to plan menus, order food and other inventory, prep and cook different meals, manage restaurants, and handle events, among other skills. They also visit restaurants and catering services, participate in internships and work in high school catering programs.

For example, students at Elk Grove have prepared food for the district's Education Foundation events and handled an alumni open house for 800 people. Rolling Meadows and Buffalo Grove students cater Education Foundation golf outings to help raise money to support public education. And several times a year, students create luncheons for staff and visitors.

Upon completion of each level of the program, students are tested for certification in ProStart, with 54 students earning certification in the 2016-17 school year. 

"This certification has brought with it acceptance into the finest culinary universities, scholarships, higher wages and better positions in the culinary field," says Buffalo Grove ProStart teacher Ronna Pflanz.

Students also participate in competitions. In February, the four-member team from Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove high schools took third place in the ProStart state management competition, winning a combined total of $68,000 in scholarships with their plan for a new restaurant concept.

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The team had to create everything from actual floor plans and marketing tactics to menu development and pricing.

"The students on the ProStart team are some of the hardest working students I know," says Rolling Meadows ProStart teacher Kimmi Krupicka. "Being a part of this competition really gives the students an advantage to see how the food-service industry works beyond the textbooks, and I'm so proud of what they accomplished."

Another aspect of the Culinary Arts pathway is Elk Grove's partnership with Schaumburg restaurant Frato's Pizza & Catering. Students compete by developing original recipes, such as Chili Chili Bang Bang Pizza and Loaded Ranch Tater Tots Pizza.

While the winning recipes are featured on the Frato's menu, students get to work closely with the staff and receive professional feedback.

"I learned from this experience how to cook better and how to manage my time when I cook," says Elk Grove High School senior Sarah Kolak.