Not just anyone who proclaims themselves a “foodie” is accepted into the program, Tronsen said. Students must complete prerequisite courses, obtain two letters of recommendation and be screened to enter.
Expectations are high, because the program standards are high.
“It has been stated by many that Badger is a leader school in Wisconsin when it comes to secondary high school culinary training,” Tronsen said.
The records speak for themselves: eight state titles since 2006, a national culinary menu title in 2008, and this past year, a national management title within the restaurant concept competition.
To truly understand what students go through, you have to think outside the pizza box. Any program can teach freshmen how to boil water and make some basic dishes.
ProStart teaches upperclassmen how to create professional cuisine, and the previously mentioned competition is prepared from start to finish — on a two-burner cooktop.
Remember the camping trip where you bravely created scrambled eggs and bacon? ProStart chefs are making a three-course meal, worthy of a fine dining restaurant, in less than 60 minutes.
“You have to be inventive and push the limits,” Tronsen said, noting that each year is a different journey. “There are no ovens, no electric appliances due to the volume of teams.”
The year the Badger team won nationals in culinary, they broke out a pressure cooker and made osso buco, which left the judges asking for seconds.
However, it’s not just about making great food. Knowing the ins and outs of a working kitchen are elements that just can’t be taught in a classroom. Students seek out employment in a food service or hospitality-related establishment. Advice is given if necessary, but most find employment on their own. Students are paid for their work experience.
One employer that Badger works closely with is Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, where chef David Ross knows the value of building relationships in the culinary world. Ross has trained several Badger ProStart students and has gone on to hire several after high school.
Ross said he gets as much out of the program as the students do.
“What I personally get out of my relationship with the ProStart program is the ability to influence young adults at a critical age in their lives,” Ross said.
Some of those young adults already know they’ll continue in the hospitality industry after high school graduation.
For ProStart participant and Badger senior Dakota Carmer, being in the business is a family tradition.
“I’ve been working in a restaurant since I was 12,” Carmer said.
His family owns a successful catering business in Lake Geneva, but didn’t necessarily want the son following in their footsteps, he said.
“They wanted me to be something else, but it’s always been a dream of mine to have my own restaurant,” Carmer said.
For Carmer, reality hit during ProStart competition. As an alternate, he was chosen as a team member only one week before the competition.
It’s the sort of experience that ProStart was created for — showing the pressure, payoff and particulars of the industry.
Working at his family’s business was a professional and cultural experience, Carmer said.
“Getting through the language barrier (working with Spanish speakers) was hard, but after the two years had passed, I was doing executive work,” Carmer said.
While students might be speeding along in their hospitality careers, they also learn how to juggle life, jobs, sports and — oh yeah — homework.
Senior Ashley Sanew said she has enjoyed her hospitality job at a Lake Geneva restaurant, but said it wasn’t easy.
“I’m doing prep work at my kitchen, and starting to do sauté,” Sanew said. “It’s stressful, but everything in the restaurant business is.”
Her dream now is the same as Carmer’s — to have her own restaurant. As a freshman, Sanew had no such goal.
Tronsen said he has had students go on to have successful careers in the area, run a boutique bakeshop in Chicago and another working in Denver.
Helping students find that “missing ingredient” in their post-high school plans is an added benefit to the program, Tronsen said.
“I have had numerous students enter the culinary program with little or no direction as to what they would be doing post-high school,” he said. “After coming into the program, they gained a focus, direction, positive attitude and purpose for coming to school.
“I have seen academic scores dramatically increase, attendance records improve and students accept responsibility for their actions,” he said.