WESTMINSTER — Valerie Baylie announced the menu specials at the kitchens in Room 235 of Standley Lake High School: Top-loin steak with red-wine sauce; sweet Hawaiian mini-burgers; beef, pepper and mushroom kabobs; and Szechuan beef stir-fry.
Four teams of students, decked out in white chef coats embroidered with their names, snapped to their preparation — under the gun of the clock and teacher Baylie's exacting critique. Today's winner, based on both preparation and presentation rubrics, would earn 50 bonus points in her grade book.
"Competition," Baylie said, "is a huge piece of the program."
And the program at Standley Lake, mirroring others across the state powered by industry partners, enjoys wide popularity as culinary classes ride a wave of pop culture cachet and economic opportunity.
Photos: ProStart at Standley Lake High School
"This is a viable career path," said 16-year-old junior Amber Harrison, whose team prepared the killer kabobs. "More and more people are recognizing it as an option."
Here, students learn the basics of cooking and nutrition before moving on to more complex culinary feats and the management process of costing out meals, restaurant-style, to determine their price points.
Introductory classes lead to participation in something called ProStart, a national program that offers curriculum, competitions and industry mentors through the Colorado Restaurant Association Education Foundation.
ProStart now reaches 29 Colorado high schools and about 850 students. Some couple their academic efforts with 400 hours of paid work in the industry to earn a national certificate that can translate into college credit and scholarship opportunities.
Mary Mino, president of the CRAEF, estimates that while about one-fourth of students enrolled in ProStart classes seek to become a chef, most pursue a broader business management track that walks students through the elements necessary to open their own restaurant.
"It's considered a career exploration program, so the students who come in have a strong sense that this industry is their interest," she said. "Some are just curious. Some just want to cook or eat."
Culinary programs have expanded to more than 120 statewide, said Rob Van Dyke, assistant Family and Consumer Sciences director for the Colorado Community College System, which oversees both secondary and postsecondary programs.
Some tie in with ProStart while others chart their own course in connecting with business partners who give students the chance to mesh work experience with school curriculum.
"They've grown because the industry is demanding more and more education," he said. "You don't just walk into it now. They're demanding some sort of background and we're trying to be responsive."
Van Dyke also oversees Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, the organization that used to be Future Homemakers of America and sponsors state and national competition as well as scholarships. It changed its name in 1999 to reflect growing industry demand and to encourage more males into the field.
More and more students translate their interest to college degrees in an industry that's perceived very differently than it was 40 years ago, said Chad Gruhl, chair of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Events at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
"We're being taken very seriously today as an academic piece of a university," said Gruhl. "Today, if you want to move up in management, you need at minimum a four-year degree. If you want to move higher in the food chain, you need a master's."
At Englewood High School, a massive building renovation will include a kitchen for a "full-blown culinary and hospitality program," said Diana Zakhem, the district's director of postsecondary and workforce readiness.
Englewood launched the initiative after surveying students and finding high interest in the industry that dovetailed well with positive economic projections. But it also wanted to tie that student interest to rigorous academics. The district is exploring a concurrent enrollment program in which its students could take courses at Metro State and eventually feed into its management programs.
Career-oriented evolution The high school will assemble its culinary curriculum, which could also include Pro-Start, next fall and begin classes in January 2014. The offerings will be available to a consortium of districts, including Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Littleton and Sheridan public schools, that work together to offer students a variety of career and technical education classes. Some of those districts also have thriving culinary programs.
Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek district, along with sister school Smoky Hill, has offered courses for years in a familiar progression — food and nutrition to gourmet food to ProStart.
The growing interest among high school students reflects the evolution of what used to be "home economics" classes, geared toward domestic-life skills, to career-oriented pursuits under the heading of family and consumer sciences. They have fed off the rising popularity of celebrity chefs.
But Audra Cooper, who teaches at Grandview, impresses on her students that the industry is anything but the glitzy avenue often portrayed on TV — and encourages the professionals who talk to her ProStart classes to give them the unvarnished truth.
"The Food Network is not a reliable source of what it's like in the industry," Cooper said. "I tell the chefs who talk to our students to give them a reality check."
At Standley Lake, more than half of the school's enrollment of about 1,500 has signed up for food classes — with room for only 600 per year.
"Our food programs here are exploding — they're exploding everywhere," said Baylie. "We're getting to the point where we need another foods lab, that's how crazy it is. And the other classes they take are so rigorous, the kids want a life skill. Kids say they thought this would be easy. I say no, this is not an easy A."
In fact, students must apply to take the ProStart class — which counts as a normal elective credit toward graduation — and are accepted based on grade point, attendance, teacher recommendation and one important intangible.
"There has to be a real passion," said Baylie. "These are kids that want to be in the food or hotel-motel industry, or own their own restaurant."
Baylie had been directing the program for a few years and, after some disappointing results in culinary competitions, felt the need to add expertise to help her "kick it up a notch."
Through ProStart, Standley Lake has developed a relationship with Troy Guard, the chef at the popular Tag restaurant in Denver's LoDo neighborhood. One of the students he mentored earned a full scholarship to Johnson & Wales University.
"When I was in high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do, let alone have someone in a profession come in and give us hands-on training," said Guard, who has worked with Standley Lake for the past three years. "I remember how it felt once I found someone who brought out that interest in me. That's what I try to do with these kids."
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, email@example.com or twitter.com/ksimpsondp