With the rise of popular food shows like “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” the food industry is becoming the career destination of choice for many American youth.

“We have 78,000 students involved in the program in 45 states,” says Bill Nolan, director of the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart Program.

ProStart is a vocational program for high school juniors and seniors interested in culinary arts and restaurant management. According to Nolan, the program has seen “explosive” growth over the last few years and has even expanded to high schools in Guam and on U.S. military bases as far away as the Pacific rim.

Ben Griswold, culinary instructor for Herndon Career Center, one of two winning schools at ProStart’s annual culinary competition, the National ProStart Invitational, says his program saw more interest than ever this school year.

“To give you an idea, I have 40 spots for my class and I had 73 students wanting to get in,” Griswold says, as his 3-student team participates in a live demonstration at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show on Saturday.

Even the annual competition hosted an increased turnout. This year alone 4,000 students participated.

Griswold’s students are among several high school teams invited to showcase their winning recipes at the show. This year the students decided to try their hand at molecular gastronomy, a culinary method where conventional uses of foods are challenged by altering the chemical and physical processes involved in cooking them.

Griswold admits he was hesitant at first, but one of the best things his students have taught him is “other ways to learn,” he says.

“I decided molecular was possible after we watched videos on YouTube about it,” he says. “That was my first time on YouTube.”

In addition to increasing interest in the industry, The Food Network and Bravo have also given students an often unrealistic view of the industry.

“They want to be stars fast,” Griswold says. “They’re willing to put in the work but they want it to be fast and they want to be like what they see on TV.”

Griswold says he tries to warn his students about the challenges of the “real industry,” but finds that they still shoot to work in the most elite establishments in Kansas City where the school is located.

Nolan says this type of enthusiasm and the ProStart program are a winning combination for the restaurant industry.

“Whether or not these students go on to post-secondary universities like the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales, they get great skills in the program that prepare them for the restaurant industry,” Nolan says. “Many actually experience operators coming to them.”

This is the 90th year of the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, which is taking place in Chicago May 16-19, 2009.

–Blair Chancey

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