By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

A chef’s world is often filled with challenges. But mentoring the young people of today about the prospects of becoming future chefs is not one of them.

While it’s true chefs can get caught up in their own windowless, stainless steel, overheated world, we also enjoy the times when we get to step into the light and spend time with the young people who will become our next generation’s workforce.

Given that the hospitality industry is the nation’s largest trade, statistically, several students will find themselves employed in a restaurant or hotel in some form or another. So on March 8, I had the honor of acting as one of the chef judges for the Montana Prostart competition, held this year in Bozeman.

Founded in 1987, Prostart is a foundation of the National Restaurant Association. Prostart is a two-year program with a mission to educate, mentor, and inspire high school students in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

The program has more than 118,000 students in 1,700 schools in all 50 states. Montana currently has 18 programs across the state, an impressive statistic when you consider we have approximately 1 million residents. Compare this percentage with California, which has just under 40 million residents and 100 Prostart programs statewide.

This annual competition allows students bragging rights, but it’s also the only event in a year-round program that fully immerses these young cooks in the culinary world. For the second year in a row, I joined a plethora of chefs from around the state to judge the state competition here in Montana.

The students are asked to prepare three dishes: a starter, an entrée and a dessert. They have one hour and just two butane burners on which to produce these three courses. I was a floor judge last year, but as a tasting judge this year’s competition, in the dessert category alone, two teams put out perfectly moist, structured cakes that some pastry chefs couldn’t duplicate even with expensive ovens.

Initially, the students spend months planning, discussing, and practicing their dishes. They decide on a menu first, usually trying to focus their three dishes on a theme: Italian, French, southeast Asian, or American, to name a few.

Next, they come up with dish ideas, while keeping in mind they have no running water and a mere two-butane burner cooking station for the allotted 60 minutes. When possible, restaurants like Buck’s T-4 Lodge invite students from the area to visit and spend a day with us. And, like sponge cakes being doused in sweet liqueur, these kids soak up the information we offer with fervor.

Besides the gratification of seeing these young people blossom into hardworking adults, the hidden bonus is coming together with other chefs from around Montana to mentor these youths. The camaraderie and respect is simply tremendous.
Personally, I was able to catch up with many colleagues, and exchange stories, anecdotes and jokes.

I feel fortunate to be part of an industry that mentors young people to this degree and allows them to see the fruits of their labors.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.