I have seen the future of cooking and her name is Nadia â€¦ and Jill, Pete, Robert, Kim, Matt and dozens more. These kids, high schoolers all, know what to do with a lamb chop, a beet, a chef’s knife and a pastry bag. They are our future chefs and a mighty impressive lot. More about them in a minute.nn
I spent a day last week wandering around the Utah Restaurant Association’s Grand Marketplace Restaurant Hospitality Show. It was, in many ways, an eye-opening experience. I was there, ostensibly, to receive the Chairman’s Award for “dedicated service” to Utah’s restaurants, clubs and its culinary scene. It was a little like a cop getting a trophy from a bunch of jailbirds. Aren’t restaurant critics and restaurateurs supposed to be adversaries? I hope this doesn’t mean I’m getting soft. Seems like only yesterday that I was the mean guy in town; the one restaurant owners and chefs feared.nn
In fact, though, I admire all of the chefs, restaurateurs and purveyors who were gathered at last week’s restaurant show. I’m enthusiastic about the simple mission they all share: to feed people. I can’t think anything more important or honorable than to have the privilege and responsibility of feeding others. And those who are the best at that mission do much more than simply feed customers. They also have the power to nurture and to feed spirits â€¦ souls. Whether it’s a tiny deli serving cheesesteaks in the back of a pottery shop, a rib joint in West Valley or a destination restaurant with an award-winning wine list, the best restaurants and the people who work in them are all filled with beating hearts, endless stories, amazing talents and some of the hardest working teams and individuals I’ve ever known. My job is to try to tell their stories fairly, accurately, and on a good day, artfully. In that sense, I suppose I am a champion of good restaurants, great service and fabulous food.nn
It’s not hard to be a cheerleader for Utah’s culinary scene when you come across the kids who are part of ProStart, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s program to educate high-school students in the culinary arts. The ProStart program is up and running in all but a handful of states in the United States, including Utah. Essentially, ProStart is a nationwide system of restaurant and food-service courses taught in high schools around the country, all linked with “mentored” work-site experience. That is, the kids learn the principles of cooking, restaurant service, management and so on in their high schools. Professional chefs and restaurateurs in the community serve to mentor the kids, many of whom will ultimately find their way into the $448 billion U.S. restaurant and food-service business.nn
At last week’s restaurant show, 30 Utah high-school teams of four students each competed in a cooking competition to earn the right to represent Utah in the National ProStart Invitational in late April/early May. It was sort of a kids’ version of Iron Chef America where three-course restaurant meals'entrÃ©e and side dish, salad, and dessert'were produced by the student teams from scratch in 60 minutes, using only two hot plates for cooking heat. The results were then judged by a team of very discriminating chefs and restaurateurs. Frankly, I was bowled over by these kids’ talents! No prima donnas among them, they worked methodically in tandem to cook up restaurant-class dishes like “pan-seared Range Creek lamb chops with red, yellow and orange peppers drizzled with mint-jalapeÃ±o glaze, served with sautÃ©ed yellow squash and zucchini sprinkled with toasted pine nuts.” Many of the dishes these creative kids prepared looked better than what gets plated in a lot of restaurants.nn
Ultimately, team captain Nadia and her classmates from Brighton High School won the ProStart cooking competition, and they’ll go on to represent Utah at the National ProStart Student Invitational in Charlotte, N.C. And lest you think these young Utah chefs might not stand a chance against national competition, think again. Last year, the team from Brighton High School took third place in the National ProStart Invitational held in Orlando.nn
In contrast to the enthusiasm and dedication of the ProStart kids, the “professional” Iron Chef competition was pretty much a flop thanks in part to a couple of no-show chefs. It reminded me a little of an event I attended during the Sundance Film Festival called Chefdance. The idea was to create a new 250-seat restaurant in Park City on a nightly basis for 10 days with a different celebrity chef at the helm each night. Folks showed up in throngs to chow down on meals prepared by the likes of Ming Tsai, Todd English and Food Network’s Tyler Florence and Dave Lieberman. In the “meet and greet” portion of the final Chefdance dinner'where the chef emerges from the kitchen to much applause and general fawning'Florence flashed a quick wave in the direction of his fans, stood for a photo op and disappeared in about 12 seconds. Many were disappointed at being shunned by one of their culinary heroes. As for me, I’d rather hang out with the future greats like Nadia and her energetic team from Brighton High School. Good luck in Charlotte!nn
For more information and to learn how you can support ProStart, visit nraef.org.