ELK RIVER, Minn. - "Talk to me!" shouts restaurateur Tom Kavanaugh as he checks the time on his smartphone and surveys a crew of chefs toiling over a meal that could dazzle any foodie.
Elk River High junior Tori Neubauer gives him the thumbs up. She's right where she needs to be as Kavanaugh counts down the minutes in an hour long drill to prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert for the National ProStart Invitational culinary and restaurant management competition in Baltimore.
Elk River's culinary team earned the right to be there by taking first in the state competition. They were joined by students from Sauk Rapids-Rice High School's team, which took first place at the state competition in restaurant management.
These are high pressure events, and indicative of just how far Family Consumer Science has come. FCS teacher Kathy Ellefson has seen it all at Elk River.
"I've taught for 38 years," said Ellefson, "and to see where home economics has come to actual career opportunities for kids is amazing."
When Ellefson started at Elk River, she was lucky enough to have a large, professional-grade kitchen to work with. Ellefson set up tables in a small serving area so her food occupations students could experience making and serving a meal to a few students at a time.
"We got so busy, we started putting tables out in the hallway," laughed Ellefson. She called the fledgling restaurant "The Hallway Cafe."
Eventually, the school expanded and Ellefson got a much bigger dining area -- one that can easily serve more than a hundred students and staff a day for a sit down meal. "The Hallway Cafe" also offers take-out and delivery.
"There's only a couple in the state like this," said Ellefson, referring to a program that attracts an ever-increasing number of students.
Students plan and price the menu, staff the kitchen, serve customers and handle the accounting. The skills students are gaining attract a wide-variety of students.
"A lot of them go into business, that marketing piece," said Ellefson.
A fair number also go into restaurant careers. That's where the culinary team comes in.
This year's team consists of three seniors, Joshua Walbolt, Emily Coomer and Stephanie McGuire, and one junior, Tori Neubauer.
Both Walbolt and Coomer intend to further their education as chefs.
"I'm going to the CIA," said Walbolt, "It's the Culinary Institute of America."
In his immediate future is staying on task with his team to prepare the perfect meal under less than perfect conditions.
"We have an hour to prepare three dishes, two identical of each dish, and appetizer, entree and dessert. We've got two burners to use, and we're going to prepare all of that in under an hour," Walbolt explained.
"It gets very intense," said Coomer.
"I've competed in over a hundred competitions myself," said Kavanaugh, who has thirty years in the business, and is one of the owners of Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort. "It makes me nervous. I'm nervous for them."
Kavanaugh commutes from the Brainerd area to coach the Elk River team. "I love that opportunity to show kids who are interested in food how to cook."
It's about more than cooking, though. The program is also about training students for a career. As an employer, Kavanaugh knows how valuable that is. "In my restaurant I couldn't afford to have culinary-trained staff. We were seasonal, and so I brought in high school and college kids and I basically operated my own little training program."
Through programs like ProStart, which is in high schools nationwide, students will graduate with a skill set ideal for employment.
"I would hire any of these four into a restaurant kitchen today," said Kavanaugh.
"I'd take it up in a heartbeat," replied senior Stephanie McGuire, who also plans to attend a professional culinary school.
The Elk River team ultimately didn't finish in the top five at the national competition, but their teacher sees plenty of good things on the horizon.
"I have executive chefs," said Ellefson. "I have people owning their own restaurants. It's amazing."
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved.)