By Anne Morrissy
On Tuesday, Sept.17, 2019, Badger High School Family and Consumer Science (FACS) teacher Jamie Lutz and the 10 students in this year’s competitive ProStart Culinary 1 and 2 classes gathered around the school’s industrial-sized ovens to bake cookies. When they were finished, they had baked 120 dozen — that’s 1,440 cookies — in a single day.
The cookies were the result of a wide-reaching community partnership between Badger High School’s ProStart Culinary program and the local restaurant and hospitality industry. Former FACS teacher Russ Tronsen started Badger’s culinary program 18 years ago as a way to engage the hospitality and tourism industry in the area and create career paths for Badger students. “My background was in food service and hospitality and then I got my teaching certification through UW-Stout,” Tronsen says. “I was familiar with the area and I thought it was a great opportunity to start a strong ProStart program.” In fact, the program he started at Badger has gone on to become one of the strongest in the state, even earning national awards and accolades.
Now back to those 120 dozen cookies. The weekend after the bake-a-thon this year, the ProStart students delivered them to Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy for Farm Aid 2019, a star-studded benefit concert. “It’s a lot of work, this class,” explains Lutz. “The students in the program do catering events outside of the class – I require three events a semester. For Farm Aid, students could choose from two different shifts. “We were helping the chefs there, serving as an extra set of hands, working to measure and prep food, whatever was needed,” Lutz continues.
It’s this kind of real-world, hands- on experience that sets the ProStart Culinary program apart from other high school classes. The rigorous curriculum is drafted by the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation with the hope that ProStart students will serve as the next generation of leaders in the restaurant and hospitality industry. It is a popular and influential program. Today, ProStart reaches more than 150,000 students in more than 1,900 high schools across the country.
STRIVING TO BE THE BEST
The selection process for admission into the program at Badger is difficult and competitive. Lutz and other teachers review applications, including letters of recommendation from community members attesting to the students’ work ethic. “We need to make sure that they are ready to commit the time that this program will require, both in school and after school,” she explains.
Through the ProStart curriculum, students learn everything from complex culinary skills to proper food storage to restaurant management skills. “Our program is broken into two years,” Lutz explains. “Each year they learn about management: how to get employees to get along, how to market your restaurant, how to set up a new restaurant space. And they also learn culinary skills.”
Throughout the school year, the Badger ProStart students work toward the ultimate goal of competing in the ProStart Invitational, a statewide competition held in Milwaukee every March. At the competition, teams of five students representing about 25 schools compete in two categories. “For the culinary side of things, the teams get one hour to make an appetizer, entrée and dessert using only two burners and no electricity,” Lutz says. “For the management portion, they have to design a restaurant concept including menu and prices, and present that concept to the judges, who then ask tough questions that a restaurant manager might get in a job interview.”
At Badger, the process of preparing for the ProStart Invitational begins in September, when tryouts are held for the five spots on the team. “It’s heavily skill based,” Lutz explains. “All the students come to tryouts and make the same dish.” The results of that single dish determine who makes the team. ProStart team practice begins in the fall and continues throughout the year. By January, the team will be practicing twice a week. By February, three and four times a week. Two weeks before the event in March, the team will be practicing five days a week.
The time and dedication Badger students devote to this preparation frequently pays off. Tronsen says that between 2001 and 2017, the team won the ProStart Invitational state competition in either culinary or management 11 times, more than any other high school in Wisconsin. A win at the state level earns entry into the national competition in Washington, D.C. Twice, the Badger team went on to win the national title.
“All the ProStart programs in the state have modeled themselves after Badger,” Lutz explains. “At the state competition, everyone has upped their game because of how good Badger is.”
Every year as part of the preparation process, Badger team members work with a coach – generally a restaurant and hospitality professional from the community. This year’s coach is Nelly Buleje, executive chef at Grand Geneva Resort’s nine restaurants and 11 kitchens. Buleje is a Badger alum himself, though he graduated before the ProStart program was implemented. He is excited about the opportunity to coach today’s students. “I really want to open up the youth in our community to the industry and the way it’s quickly changing,” he says. “I want to show students how the changes in the kitchen reflect the changes we see in the world. I want them to understand that although it’s hard work and labor intensive, it’s still fun.”
Lutz, who joined the Badger staff this year after spending 12 years at Westosha High School, says these partnerships with local industry professionals and businesses are the best part about working at Badger High School. “A lot of people think it’s just that the [ProStart] program has a really strong curriculum, but Badger is so supportive of everything we want to do as teachers,” she says. “And it’s not only the school support and administrative support, but the support we’ve gotten from the community. Everyone I talk to in the industry wants to know how they can help the program.”
Part of that community support includes fundraising. Every May, the Ridge Hotel hosts the Burger Throwdown, a charity event in which local chefs from throughout the area compete to be crowned the Burger Champion. Proceeds from the event, which generally sells out weeks in advance, benefit the Badger ProStart Culinary program. “Without the businesses helping us, we wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do throughout the year, including buy the latest equipment for our program,” Lutz says.
When asked what made him decide to coach the ProStart Culinary team this year, Executive Chef Buleje says the connection between the professional kitchen and the classroom is an important motivator. “I wanted to make a difference in the community and this is one way I hope to leave a lasting legacy.”
Lutz says that for her, the hard work is worth it, especially when she sees many of the ProStart students go on to culinary school or hospitality management degree programs. “It’s definitely a labor of love,” she says. “When the kids actually get to go to the [ProStart Invitational] competition, their eyes are just gleaming. They’re interacting with some of the most well-known chefs throughout the state. When they get a compliment on their dish, they’re just so excited. Exposing the kids to new ideas and new cooking strategies, letting them have experiences they’ve never had before…that’s what makes this program so successful.”