When little becomes big

By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Earlier this winter I wrote about Prostart, a high school program through which students can learn the basics of culinary arts, as well as the tools to plan, design and open a fictional restaurant. To showcase what they have learned, Prostart holds a statewide competition for the high schools willing and able to compete.

Six teams from Montana squared off this past winter, and Belgrade High School—no strangers to winning this competition in the past—won again and went on to compete at the national level. And as a late participant to the season, being a mentor for the Belgrade team, I was fortunate enough to be invited with the team and instructors to attend the national competition this year in Grapevine, Texas.

I say fortunate because, more than just having this incredible opportunity, I am truly fortunate that the event opened my eyes to the camaraderie, talent, drive, professionalism and sportsmanship that this competition embodies. Once you see these kids compete, you quickly forget they are high school students.

The Prostart occupies a grand ballroom in one of the largest non-gaming hotels in the U.S., and one quickly realizes the magnitude of this wonderful competition. With nearly all 50 states competing, (lack of funding or intimidation prevent one or two schools each year from making the trip), it has all the energy of a national sporting championship.

Watching the students’ faces as they entered the vast competition floor, I was reminded of the scene in “Hoosiers” when the small-town basketball team walked into the coliseum-sized arena. They were wide-eyed, but I reminded them that—much like the court and rim were the same size as the Hoosiers’ court back in Indiana—our students’ competition space was the same size it’s always been.

As I walked the competition floor early on day one, it became apparent that our team was up against several serious adversaries. While Montana does have 19 Prostart programs currently, some states have many more along with well-funded, commercial facilities within which they thoroughly groom their students for what has become a competition of immense rivalry and pride.

Our Montana team did not place, but that didn’t matter, at least to me. The competition, knowledge, relationships and insight these students are exposed to are experiences; real, useful experiences they can take with them the rest of their lives.

In an industry that will statistically employ two-thirds of the competitors in this event at some point, they are furthering life skills in real, valuable, practical ways. I was proud of not only our Belgrade team representing the great state of Montana, but every single young adult I saw over the course of the weekend.

As we sat during the closing ceremony, organizers announced the winners to a crowd of well over 1,000 people. I turned to our hard-working Montana team.

“Take a moment, take it all in,” I said. “Even though you didn’t win, this is for all of you. Hold your heads high, for very few students your age will ever experience anything like this in any school program.”

They looked around. I think they got it.

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.