In the March CEO Podcast, Washington Hospitality Association President & CEO Anthony Anton sat down with the Washington state ProStart champions, both the management team and the culinary team. Both teams are heading to Washington D.C., in May to compete at the National ProStart Invitational. 

The association would especially like to thank the Cowlitz Tribe, which contributed a grant to help these students make the trip. 

Bonney Lake High School management team 

He started chatting with Em McCollough, Mira Tynes and Kellyjo Hammond of Bonney Lake High School in Pierce County. The three make up the management team taking their plans for a restaurant called, “Wish.” The team’s educator is Kahale Ahina and their mentor is Dan Corekin of Valley Harvest Products. 

Hammond said their original idea for their restaurant was to take dishes they have seen in movies and feature them in real life, but that idea became too broad. They narrowed it down to an animated film theme, emphasizing the nostalgia of being a kid. 

“Our goal was to make the food exactly how it was onscreen so people would feel more connected to the movie and to their youth,” McCollough said. 

“So, what you’re really hoping to do is to create a great experience for people coming in,” Anthony said. “Really connect with some great memories.” 

McCollough agreed, saying that she hopes to connect to everyone possible, whether it is an 80-year-old with their grandchildren who remembers watching “Bambi,” or a five-year-old who just watched “Moana.” 

Some of the dishes the three put on their menu were ratatouille, Alice in Wonderland “Eat Me” and “Drink Me” cookies and potions, and Tiana’s gumbo from the Princess and the Frog. 

Anthony said it sounded like the three combined their passions and hoped to create a great customer experience. 

“That’s really at the heart of hospitality, right?” he said. 

ProStart is a career and technical education program in high school nationwide. It integrates practical skill sets and allows students to become familiar with a career in restaurants, whether at the front of the house, in management or as a chef. 

For these three girls, they all said they really developed a passion for their project. 

Hammond said someday, she would love to do something like her management project as a career, especially as she learned the business side of owning a restaurant. 

Anthony said there are a lot of great cooks who may not succeed after opening a restaurant because they never got the foundations of the management side. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said, and wondered what some of the lessons were the students took from this experience. 

“One of the things, our gumbo, was very cheaply made,” Tynes side. “Gumbo is a dish that feeds a lot of people with not very many ingredients and not very expensive ingredients.” 

She said when they were costing the dish, it turned out to be cheap to make. Since it was one of their entrees, they realized they couldn’t make as much money on that dish if they made it with those ingredients. 

“It was really hard,” Tynes said. “We had to figure out other things we had to cost out so we can balance it out, make it so our gumbo isn’t super cheap, but nothing else on our menu isn’t over-the-top expensive to make up for that.” 

“If you were going to give advice to operators across the state about how to hire people in ProStart, where’s the best place for them to start?” Anthony asked the team. 

Hammond said that she needs a flexible work schedule when she is working. 

“I, personally, am involved a lot at school,” she said. “I’m currently a Running Start student so my classes don’t match up with my high school classes. I’m captain of the tennis team. I’m also in three other clubs.” 

She said there will be times when it is tough to find time to work, so she’d like someplace that will not only let her contribute to the job, but that will also accommodate her schedule. 

Newport High School (Bellevue, Wash.) culinary team 

Anthony also caught up with the culinary team from Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash. The team includes Armaan Virk, Cameron Poad, Brady Talich, Porter Neauman and Wesley Zhang. Their teachers are Tracy Green and Ashley Choi. Their industry mentor is Justin Lee from the Snoqualmie Casino. 

The team cooked up an appetizer of a pan-seared scallop, wild Northwest mushrooms, carbonated Cara Cara oranges, a crispy kale chip and a citrus hollandaise sauce. Their entrée consisted of a pan-seared Mishima reserve Wagyu ribeye steak, a butter-poached lobster tail, roasted golden beets, a chickpea panisse, sweet onion and fennel salad, a chevre mousse, Brussels sprout leaves and a chimichurri. 

For dessert, the students rounded out the meal with a lemon-curd mascarpone Chantilly, macerated blackberries, a Marcona almond crumb, a cinnamon fritter, with aerated white chocolate, mint for garnish and fairy dust on top. 

“Those are some complicated dishes,” Antony said. “Were those hard to create?”  

The group said it took a long time to get everything down. They all had a good idea about the ingredients they wanted to work with and what direction they wanted to go. 

“We’re in the Northwest, we’ve got so many great, fresh ingredients out here that we really wanted to showcase, and I think we did a pretty good job to show what the Northwest has to offer,” one of them said. 

The group said their mentor, Justin Lee, helped to guide them with their menu and helped them turn ingredients into dishes. 

“It was pretty eye-opening on the different techniques that we just weren’t apt to yet,” one said.  

The groups compared the experience of competing at ProStart with sports.  

“At the beginning, you’re just full of nerves, you don’t really know what you’re doing but once you get cooking the adrenaline is going and everything is perfect,” one of them said. 

The group really enjoyed the pressure of the moment. They said that practice helped them turn mistakes into problem-solving when things didn’t go the way they practiced. 

“We didn’t realize until 30 minutes into cooking we didn’t bring any oil for our fryer,” one said. “We had to improvise really hard using some of our oil that we just brought for searing scallops and the steak.” 

“That’s probably one of the most real experiences,” Anthony said, who was impressed by their resourcefulness. 

COVID had hampered these students when they first started high school and they couldn’t participate in ProStart, but once they started competing, they were surprised at not only the competition, but the professionals who were at the competitions to support upcoming generations of hospitality professionals. 

One found the program to be a great introduction to the industry and looks forward to continuing with the program. 

Virk said he is very passionate about working in a kitchen and plans to make this his career path. 

“I want to own my own restaurant and I want to be a Michelin-star chef,” he said. 

“When I’m 50 I’d like to own my own restaurant or manage my own restaurant,” said Zhang. “My family managed their own restaurant. I think it’s kind of nice to continue that legacy.” 

Anthony asked them how they thought employers could better connect with them, students who are interested in the industry. 

“I think the best way they can do that is through programs like this,” one of them said. Their high school has a full industrial kitchen and every year, 20 new kids come to start learning college-level culinary skills.