COURTESY EXETER JOB CORPS ACADEMY
JOB WELL-DONE: Rafael Alvarez, a student at Exeter Job Corps Academy and sous chef for Team Passion in the Rhode Island ProStart competition, prepares a dish for the contest at the Radisson Hotel Providence Airport in Warwick.
Kevin Millonzi, owner of Millonzi’s Bar and Grille in West Warwick, is always on the lookout for good cooks, but finding professional kitchen talent can be as challenging as making a quality Hollandaise.
So when Millonzi sampled the dishes prepared by the 28 students entered in Rhode Island’s first-ever ProStart cooking competition in February, it crossed his mind that someday maybe they might be working for him.
“Finding good cooks is definitely challenging – there is a work pool but a lot of people unmotivated to work,” Millonzi said. “These kids were very impressive.”
Organized by the National Restaurant Association, the National ProStart Invitational is designed to teach and motivate high-school-age students in culinary programs across the country to improve their skills.
Bringing the competition to Rhode Island has long been on the agenda of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, but the cost and resources involved in hosting a state tournament here have been a barrier.
This year, national restaurant supplier US Foods provided a $5,000 sponsorship for the event, while the Radisson Hotel in Warwick donated the space to host the competition.
In a contest of seven teams, four students from the Exeter Job Corps Center in Exeter finished first and on April 27 will fly to Baltimore to take on 42 teams from across the country in the national competition.
“It encourages people that you can come into the industry for one year or a career,” said Rhode Island Hospitality Association President and CEO Dale Venturini. “It is not just cooking. It is showing people that there is a bigger picture to running a restaurant.”
In the ongoing effort to create jobs and build the economy, the restaurant and hospitality industries often take a back seat to the technology sector and other areas known for big salaries.
But with hospitality the fourth-largest employer in Rhode Island and one of the few sectors expected to grow throughout the country in the next decade, industry and political leaders say failing to train a skilled, culinary workforce would be a missed opportunity for the state.
“The hospitality industry employs more than 60,000 residents and some of those may be in the entry level, but a significant amount are high-paying jobs,” said Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., who visited the contest winners at Exeter Job Corps this month. “We know tourism is one of the top industries for the state and nation and we need people to do this job. An executive chef can make $90,000 a year.”