Editor’s notebook: Competition teases bright future for students

Peter Osborne
DBT Editor

By Peter Osborne

Morgan Fitzhugh was “kind of mad.”

She had just gotten feedback on her Oysters Chesapeake dish from three of Delaware’s top restaurateurs (including 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist chef Matthew Kern) and she was embarrassed that one of them questioned her seasoning.

Never mind that the three agreed the appetizer was “restaurant quality” and they’d serve it at their establishments. She was seeking perfection.

The dish would later be awarded first place in the seventh annual Delaware ProStart Student Invitational. Morgan’s Caesar Rodney team won the Culinary part of the competition (St. George’s Vocational-Technical School won the management part — the first time that a vo-tech school has taken top honors). And Morgan’s dish won Best Starter among the 14 schools competing in the Culinary phase.

Did I mention that Morgan is a 14-year-old freshman?

Interestingly, this was the first of three different encounters with groups that are trying to improve young people’s chances to get real-world experience as part of their educational experience. ProStart is a nationwide, two-year curriculum that currently reaches 140,000 high-school students in 1,800 schools. It includes a 400-hour internship at a monitored work site.

I also met with the leaders and newest student class of Year Up (see page 2) and then last week was introduced to the work that Zip Code Wilmington is doing with M&T and Wilmington Trust to help create opportunities in technology and other banking jobs as they expand (see page 3).

During my conversation with the Year Up team, I mentioned that my high-school junior daughter had come home a few weeks ago complaining that guidance counselors seemed to be pushing alternatives to four-year colleges.

I agreed with her at the time, but I’m starting to see the other side.

Part of the challenge has to do with the skyrocketing cost of college and the oppressive debt that many families are incurring to ensure their children have their shot at the American Dream. I’m also seeing it as I review applications for my open reporter position, with the number of graduates from good schools that have spent the past two or three years looking for jobs in their majors but settling instead for an unending procession of server positions.

My heart breaks for them — and for their parents. But programs like ProStart, Year Up, Zip Code Delaware, and the Delaware Pathways program are offering these young people something that’s critically important: Professional experience and exposure. And in many cases, hope for a real future.

For many companies around the First State, these programs are helping tighten the talent gap and address an incredibly tight job market, particularly for tech jobs.

Each of the five members of the Caesar Rodney team qualified for scholarships from 10 schools ranging from $1,000 to $8,000. A few of them entered the competition for “fun” (there were tryouts that involved a knife-skill demonstration and interviews), but all agreed they could see a future that included the hospitality industry.

The competitors had no running water, no electricity (which also meant no refrigeration), and two butane burners to cook on (parenthetically, I was relieved when I heard the judge say they thought the oysters were cooked perfectly). Teamwork was critical. They had to cook a three-course menu in 60 minutes and found themselves in the days leading up to the competition making lots of changes and tweaking their recipes.

Junior Ziare Williams said dessert was going to be banana pudding three weeks before the competition, but they changed at the last minute to a petite dark-chocolate cake with cream-cheese orange filling and a chocolate ganache with free raspberries and orange supreme. Remember: No running water or electricity/refrigeration, and two Bunsen burners that were also being used for Oysters Chesapeake and a duck-centric entrée.

Over on the management side, the St. George’s team created a concept behind St. Linguine’s (authentic Italian cuisine for both college students and full-time workers on the go). They fielded tough questions from a panel of judges from places like Harry’s Hospitality Group, Dogfish Head Brewery, Harrington Raceway & Casino, Blue Moon Restaurant, and Sodel Concepts. You could see the confidence growing among many of them as they responded to questions in the categories of critical thinking, menu and menu costs, marketing, concept, and operations.

Both ProStart teams will head to Washington, D.C., from May 8-10 to compete against teams from across
the nation. Let’s hope Morgan leaves the nation’s capital happy.

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