Career Development Center Students Savor Results at ProStart Invitational

CDC culinary student prepares an avocado salad

There’s always something cooking in SVVSD’s Career Development Center’s ProStart Culinary Program. That something extends well beyond the food. Walk through the kitchen backing the Career Development Center’s welcoming Sunset Café (open to the community most Wednesdays through Fridays), and you’re bound to be impressed by a bustle that is energetic yet calm; keen focus and attention to detail on the part of student chefs and their teachers; creative inventiveness and passion; and an overall display of respectful, trusting teamwork in action. In other words, this kitchen—and most importantly those who occupy it—has all the key ingredients needed for success.

Since 1971, the Career Development Center has been the St. Vrain Valley School District’s area career and technical education school. Serving over 1,000 students each academic year, it is one of several Career and Technical Centers recognized by the Colorado Community College System. Any SVVSD high school student is eligible to enroll in the broad range of employment-based programs, with transportation being provided to and from each home school by the Career Development Center. “We work closely with business and industry to provide secondary programming that meets the region’s workforce needs,” says Career Development Center Principal Deniece Cook. “In the past five years, we have added concurrent credit and industry certifications to our programs.”

The Career Development Center distinguishes itself through innumerable means, not least for the integrity of its programs. In fact, CDC recently obtained status as a Front Range Community College site. This designation will allow for expansion of concurrent offerings, Cook says.

Among the Career Development Center’s wide range of programs, which includes the Agriculture, Health Sciences, Hospitality, Skilled Trades and Stem career pathways, the ProStart Culinary Program serves up a whole lot of goodness, literally and figuratively. “Our program offers kids that first professional start in the industry, while teaching them the commercial side…making them all the more employable,” says Culinary Instructor Hope Nazzaro. “Not all our students will go on to pursue culinary careers, but I always tell them, these are skills that will serve you for a lifetime. Whether it’s working their way through college in restaurants, cooking for their families at home, or applying the skills they learn to other careers.”

Through the national ProStart Culinary Program, students can earn industry certifications, including ServSafe Food Handler and ServSafe Manager. Those who complete the full two years of offerings further earn a nationally-recognized ProStart Culinary Program certificate. The overall outcomes, however, run much deeper. “I appreciate what I have learned and will try my best to apply it in my normal life,” says Silver Creek Senior Tammi Torres, who has finished the ProStart program and completed her ServSafe certificate. “Not only cooking and baking skills, but also teamwork, critical thinking; also some math, and thinking ahead.”

Students appreciate intrinsic rewards and shared satisfaction from the program as regularly as lunch and dinner. But their hard work and committed efforts received special acknowledgment early this month, at the annual ProStart Invitational. In its 20th year, the ProStart Invitational, which was held at Gaylord Rockies Hotel March 1, is self-described as a cross between “Top Chef” and “Shark Tank”. In this exciting and challenging event, high school culinary and management teams compete in two events demonstrating their mastery of culinary and business management skills. Prior to competition, participating ProStart Culinary students Jose Gonzalez (Olde Columbine High School Senior), Vanessa Cera (Skyline High School Junior), Tammi Torres (Silver Creek High School Senior), Annie Vanderveen (Silver Creek High School Sernior) and Lizbeth Lopez (Skyline High School Senior) had been putting in endless hours to prepare—during school, after school, and on weekends. Local Chef Mentor Sayab Poot was exceptional and student-centered, Nazzaro says. “He was so inspiring. He was always asking the kids, ‘what do you want to make’, ‘what do you want to learn about’. They came up with a really awesome menu that challenged them. The entire process was a whole team effort.”

As part of their preparation, students assigned themselves roles as a team. Vanderveen would take care of the lobster avocado salad appetizer; Gonzales was in charge of the ramen noodle main dish, for which the noodles were made from scratch; Cera and Torres were preparing the steamed cake dessert; and Lopez was the overall team manager. During the Culinary Competition, teams prepare a three-course meal in one-hour using only two butane burners. Nazzaro and fellow Culinary Instructor Yvonne Justice are must be mute observers. Only the team-designated Manager may communicate, to the team and judges. To say the set-up can be imposing would be an understatement. “We only had a 10 X 10 square to do all our cooking in,” says Vanderveen. “We couldn’t use any electric cooking utensils, like a KitchenAid mixer or an oven…we had only two Bunsen burners. There were judges walking around watching us cook in the hour we had, looking out for our technique, safety and sanitation, communication and teamwork.”

For the five student team, extra hurdles made the day all the more challenging. “We got to our food, and to our surprise a few of our things were frozen,” says Lopez. “In that moment, we were all scared and couldn’t believe what was happening. A Chef approached us and asked if our food was frozen, and what we needed. In a few minutes later, they came with our ingredients and we all felt amazing again.”

In addition to frozen ingredients, the team faced another sharp-clawed obstacle in the form of lobsters. “You know, lobsters need to be cooked fresh,” Nazzaro says. “That alone was nerve-wracking for Annie. Then, on the day, our lobsters arrived dead.” Luckily, Nazzaro had a back-up plan. She dashed to Denver’s Pacific Ocean Marketplace, and the day was saved…but albeit with an extra charge of unsettling adrenaline.

All the time working together as a team and the ensuing camaraderie paid off dividends. “Once we started cooking, I made sure to tease my team members like I did at practice”, Lopez says. “Annie killed the lobster like a pro, Juni was rolling his noodles with a speed of a jaguar, and Tammi and Vanessa were killing the dessert with kindness. I knew we were all having the time of our lives and we were having fun with one another.”

One final scare rounded out the day for the tireless team. Lopez’s stopwatch stopped working toward the end of their hour. Thinking they had approximately four minutes left, they found they were down to less than one, resulting in the team going two minutes over the time limit. Ultimately, however, the team’s exemplary communication skills, teamwork, and dishes spoke for themselves. Not only did their performance earn forgiveness for the time, they were awarded third place among the twenty-two competing teams. Additionally, they earned first places in Top Dessert and Top Culinary Skills categories.

From their third-place win, each of the participating students was awarded a total of $12,500 that may be applied in specific amounts to contributing colleges, should they choose to pursue their education there:

  • $500 Johnson and Wales University
  • $4,000 Culinary Institute of Virginia
  • $6,000 New England Culinary Institute
  • $1,000 Culinary Institute of Art
  • $1,000 Louisiana Culinary Institute

“I intend to apply to the colleges and see what the options are for me,” says Lopez. “I want to keep going to school for culinary arts.”

Students may not be able to make use of all the scholarship money. Depending on their next steps and chosen career directions, they may not have the opportunity to apply any of it. But the honor and recognition will doubtless be lasting…experience gained from the competition itself, and most certainly from the program as a whole. “I’ve learned so much,” says Vanderveen. “Not just culinary, but about life. I don’t want to leave [Mrs. Hope’s and Mrs. Yvonne’s] class, but I know that I have to move on. I will never forget that competition or anything that my teachers have taught me.”