This is the 11th year that the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation has hosted the Louisiana ProStart Student Competition, in which juniors and seniors from 21 high schools around the state compete both for scholarship opportunities and for a chance to represent Louisiana in a national  event.

ProStart is a two-year program that focuses on both the culinary arts and hospitality management. The goal is to give a leg up in cooking school to those students who want to take their education further, and to help those students who want to begin their careers immediately to do so. The Louisiana Restaurant Association helps to pair students with LRA members, and students complete a 400-hour internship as a part of the program. It's invaluable hands-on training for the students, and helps LRA members, who also serve as mentors, find the next generation of chefs and front-of-house staff. The program is an initiative of the National Restaurant Association,  which sponsors the national ProStart Invitational that will take place in Baltimore from April 27-29.

There are two components to the competition that took place this week at the Pontchartrain Center: culinary and management. On Tuesday, teams of four students from 21 schools cooked three-course menus consisting of a soup, salad or appetizer; a protein such as meat, fish or fowl, vegetable and starch; and a cold or flambéed dessert. The cooking took place in a huge room, with each team set up in its own small station, surrounded by onlookers – and jackasses like me taking pictures. They had one hour.

This was the first time I'd attended the event, and I have to admit that the prospect of high school students cooking three courses of gourmet food in an hour did not give me a great deal of confidence that the results would be noteworthy. But while I didn't have a chance to taste the food they cooked, I came away incredibly impressed by the menus these kids designed and the plates they composed. They took this thing very seriously, and it was pretty cool to see the concentration they displayed under a fair amount of pressure. I had a chance to speak with a few of the instructors, and they seemed more nervous than the students.

Wednesday saw the management portion of the competition. Teams from 11 schools had to come up with a restaurant concept, pitch it to potential (fictional) investors, then answer questions that challenged them to deal with issues that restaurant managers face on a day-to-day basis. I didn't get to attend that portion of the competition, and I guess it doesn't sound as exciting as the cooking bit, but the insiders to whom I spoke told me it's every bit as fascinating to see what kinds of restaurant concepts these kids present. They said that for 17- and 18-year-olds, the poise demonstrated is remarkable. Now I am one poised son of a bitch, but I'm 42 and I've been practicing law for damn near 20 years. “Poised” is not an adjective that anyone would have used to describe me at 18, let alone 17. It's enough to give one hope that the next generation isn't going to let us all decay in nursing homes while they play video games and drink their caffeinated beverages and disco dance and listen to that rock-and-roll music that I'm still convinced is a fad which will go away any day now.

There's a great deal more to this story than I have the time to impart. Not least the participation of culinary schools, local and national businesses, and the LRA's Education Foundation, which is doing great things to help young people realize their dreams to make it in the industry.

As of this writing, the winners have yet to be announced, but hopefully I'll have a chance to update you tomorrow on the winning teams and their menus. 

In other news, Dominique Macquet's Tamarind begins serving lunch today. The restaurant is located in the Hotel Modern, and features a fine-dining menu with strong Vietnamese influences. Call (504) 962-0900 to find out more.