Teen Chefs: Life Lessons from the Kitchen

Kyle Rhoads can create fine seafood dishes, and lead people. He can envision himself doing both, at his own restaurant by the sea.

Joaquin Rocha knows his way around the butcher’s block, and loves cooking and culture. He dreams of combining the two, as proprietor of his own Mexican restaurant.

Justin Ard, a Louisiana native with a penchant for dishing up Cajun seafood, enjoys catering, especially when diners return for a second helping.

And Diana Cubas, originally from Peru, is a wonder at all things chocolate, and dreams of opening her own bakery.

All four students are rising seniors at Cary High School, taking part in the ProStart program, a two-year culinary career-building course supported by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation in partnership with the state restaurant association.

“This is not like any other class,” said Rocha. “It’s real life experience.”


ProStart students blend discovery and hands-on experience with a pinch of passion, to prepare for a booming career field.

In North Carolina, restaurants will generate $14.1 billion in sales this year, and the industry employs almost 400,000 people, reports the National Restaurant Association.

Nationally, nearly half of all food dollars is spent at restaurants, with employment projected at 15 million people by 2019.

Tracie Dunlap teaches ProStart classes at Cary High; she’s National Board Certified and holds a Secondary Foodservice Educator Certificate. Dunlap stirs her own restaurant background into the coursework for culinary, baking and pastry arts, and hotel and restaurant management.

The curriculum covers the industry from kitchen to table, including knife skills, customer service, restaurant management, and of course, meal preparation.

Dunlap put her students’ cooking skills to the test earlier this year, when Rhoads, Rocha, Ard and Cubas competed against eight other North Carolina teams in the Carolinas ProStart Student Invitational, held in Myrtle Beach.

First, Dunlap supervised timed, no-recipe class projects and after-school practices. Students also got pointers from Ryan Pilz, managing partner of Ruckus Pizza in Cary.

Their Culinary Cup competition time was 7:45 a.m., with one hour to prepare a three-course meal, using only two butane burners and a budget of $75. No electricity, no running water or refrigeration — and no coaching from Dunlap.

“Tweak and make changes, tweak and make changes. The day before the competition we were still making changes!” Dunlap said.

She watched the one-hour timer count down, as her students prepared shrimp and apple-smoked bacon over couscous cakes with a spinach side, and a dessert of strawberry and buffalo mozzarella with mint pesto and balsamic drizzle, all while being critiqued by a panel of certified chefs.

“I was a wreck, but they performed spot on,” Dunlap said. “They were amazing!”

“I wasn’t nervous, just tense because we had been working on it for so long and it was ‘that’ moment,” Rhoads said.

“They watched our finger work, cutting skills, sanitizing … we had to be perfect,” Rocha said. “It was the best experience ever, and it was really exciting to represent Wake County.”

In the end, the Cary High team won third place statewide in the culinary competition, and Cubas won Best Chicken Fabrication among North and South Carolina teams.

The win earned team members more than $50,000 in scholarships to culinary schools such as Johnson and Wales, New England Culinary Institute and Le Cordon Bleu.

“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Dunlap said. “It was a great experience, and we look forward to next year.”

Back at Cary High, ProStart students cater events such as Tea Time for Teachers, and the Green Tie Gala with the school’s Fine Arts department. They choose and scale menus to the crowds, then prepare the foods in class.

“We try to get as much real-life experience as possible,” Dunlap said. “And I try to bring my passion to it, sharing my restaurant stories and incorporating what I’ve done and seen to bring the kids on board.

“I’ve seen them grow in their skills and change as people. They are all awesome.”

Students who complete the program and a 400-hour restaurant internship earn the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement, offering culinary school credit.

In the relatively new program at Cary High, two students earned certification last year, and five are currently working toward it. Sanderson High in Raleigh is the only other Wake County school offering ProStart.

Cubas says the program has shown her new ways to approach learning.

“I love cooking. I feel like I was born to do this,” she said. “It gives me hope for my future.”

“This course has taught me the importance of the restaurant industry; I’d never thought about its impact on society before,” Rhoads said.

“We’re learning a lot about the business side, how to run a restaurant and how to act when you’re in one, serving customers,” Ard added. “It’s taught me to be able to cooperate and communicate with people.”

Cooking, Rocha says, is a lot like life.

“In a recipe you have to put in certain things to get it just right. Life is a puzzle, too — even if you’re not sure what you have, when you’re finished, it’s a work of art.”

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