ProStart puts students on culinary pathway

Jennifer Pacheco was 5 when she started watching cooking shows with her mom. She credits the inspiration she drew from those programs with helping her earn the $4,000 scholarship the Georgia Restaurant Association will present to her on Sept. 27 as the ProStart Student of the Year.

Last year, Pacheco enrolled at Gwinnett’s Maxwell High and its culinary course where she learned about ProStart, a national program that gives students insight into the industry through competitions and connections. In the spring, Pacheco and her team took top honors at ProStart’s Georgia contest in the management division.

“That competition helped me generate ideas and made me figure out a business plan, budgets, floor plans, location, interior design and menus,” said the Lawrenceville senior. “That was great because my goal is to one day open my own restaurant.”

Maxwell’s Culinary Arts instructor Amanda Williams has spent 11 years helping students like Pacheco get a realistic introduction to the challenges and rewards of working in the hospitality arena.

“ProStart challenges students to perform their best and think about real-world scenarios,” said Williams. “And through it, students are able to network with people in the industry. It’s a great opportunity, especially if they want to be executive chefs or be in management.”

Culinary students at Maxwell spend half their school day – about three hours – getting instructions and the chance to cook. Those who participate in ProStart, said Williams, usually have a specific career path in mind.

“They’re the ones who are going into the industry or culinary school, and they have a higher commitment because they want to create a career out of it,” she said.

GRA President and CEO Karen Bremer said students have benefitted from ProStart since its inception in 1991, when the late Herman Cain was chair of the National Restaurant Association and kicked off the program in Atlanta. It’s since grown to 50 states, D.C. and Guam, and enrolls 145,000 students in 1,800 schools.

“Students will learn practical skills, and they also get a certification in food service sanitation, which is required by the state,” said Bremer. “It also introduces them to all the different career paths in the industry. There are close to 100,000 jobs that include site development, marketing, public relations, finance, franchise relations and photography.”

This year, Pacheco is back at Maxwell as a culinary arts intern and plans to compete again. That commitment prompted Williams to nominate her for the GRA award.

“She has really put a lot of effort into the class, and she plans on going to culinary school,” said Williams. “One way to make it more affordable is through scholarships, so any opportunity I can give students to get one, I want to assist with.”

Information about ProStart is online at

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