By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Aug 29, 2016 at 11:01 AM

As Milwaukee Public Schools gears up for another school year, around 450 juniors and seniors at four area high schools are preparing to get their first taste of the hospitality industry.

Beginning Sept. 1, Bay View High School, James Madison Academic Campus, Harold S. Vincent High School and Washington High School of Information Technology will welcome students to the ProStart program, a two-year culinary-focused program which aims to engage students in the culinary arts while providing them the tools they need to jumpstart their careers in the growing food and hospitality industry. 

The hands-on culinary arts program utilizes a curriculum designed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation which educates students in a variety of areas including management, cooking, food safety and purchasing, as well as front of house operations.

And from the look of things, it could be a game changer for Milwaukee's culinary landscape.

Why culinary?

The motivation for the program encompasses a number objectives. The first is to offer true career readiness for students in MPS who may not otherwise thrive in traditional academic settings.

"This is a real opportunity to engage students who might not otherwise be engaged," says Tony Tagliavia, MPS Student Recruitment and Retention Specialist. "The hope is that this gives some of our kids just one more compelling reason to come to school every day."

The second is to serve a growing need in the Milwaukee community.

"I don’t know a restaurant right now that’s not looking for help," notes Jennifer Bartolotta, who has devoted time in assisting MPS to get the program off the ground. "There’s a tremendous need for skilled labor in the industry. On our end, it’s evident in the fact that almost half of the employees we hired for the restaurants at the Mayfair Collection had no prior industry experience."

The program, which has been in the works for about a year, owes its launch to a number of organizations and individuals including Aurora Healthcare, Boelter, Colder’s, Goodwill, Kahler-Slater, MATC, Reason IQ, and restaurants including the Bartolotta Restaurant Group, c.1880, Colour Palate, dandan, Honeypie Cafe, Hospitality Democracy, Supper, the SURG restaurant group and Wolf Peach.

And in many ways, it’s been an inspiring journey.

"For me, this is a story about local," notes Bartolotta. "This is about the community giving back to the community. We’re so quick to be down on what’s wrong with this city. But this is a shining example of people coming together to really make a difference."

Setting the stage

This summer, home economics classrooms in each high school were converted into kitchen lab spaces with updated equipment; next summer, those classrooms will be upgraded to include commercial-grade kitchens. Some of the work happened thanks to Alex Neumann, the Wisconsin ProStart Coordinator, who assisted the district with walk throughs in each school, providing a toolkit for pushing the program forward.

Meanwhile, four teachers with backgrounds in the hospitality industry attended special training sessions including a two-day session with ProStart Teacher of the Year, Kayla Correll and a three-week program with Kelly Roecker, Bartolotta’s Director of Training, who walked them through every aspect of the Bartolotta training process, from Downtown Kitchen to fine dining at Bacchus.

Moving forward, there is hope that the program can be linked directly with the urban agriculture program at Vincent High School on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, which currently maintains a greenhouse, hoop house, animal room, landscape equipment, aquaponics and outdoor study areas. A potential future aim could include an on-campus restaurant that is staffed by ProStart® students and sources at least a percentage of food products from the agriculture program.

"This program is part of an increasing emphasis in MPS on partnerships and collective impact," notes Julia Petersen, MPS Manager of Strategic Plans and Special Projects, "This is one example of that. A variety of chefs and community members have rallied around this initiative, helping us to get it off the ground. In return, we offer them the opportunity to have a widespread impact on thousands of students in Milwaukee."

Chef mentorships

In addition to its extensive network of partnerships with organizations throughout the city, what sets the MPS program apart from others is a mentorship program through which individual Milwaukee chefs commit four hours of time each week to work with students.

Participating chefs include Adam Lucks of Honeypie; Chris Martin, Larry Bushner and Doug Essers from Aurora; Jarvis Williams of SURG Restaurant Group; Omar Andrietsch of Color Palate; Thomas Hauck of c.1880 and Karl Ratzsch's; Daniel Jacobs of dandan; Bill Doyle and Aaron Miles of the Marcus Restaurants; Cole Ersel of Wolf Peach; J. Wolf of Goodwill Industries; and Andrew Ruiz and Dane Baldwin of Bartolotta’s.

The mentorship model has great advantages.

"Chefs come from so many different walks of life," notes Jennifer Bartolotta "And many of them were not star students in school. That’s a great story for the kids to hear. It’s inspiring. And at the same time, they’re gaining exposure to mentors with different leadership styles and experiences. That offers even more chances for the messaging to resonate."

And although it’s a fairly big time commitment on the part of the city’s busy chefs, it’s one they feel strongly about making.

"I feel that there may be some students that maybe didn't tap into their skill set of the industry yet, and they may need a chef that works in the industry to help with that," notes ProStart mentor Chef Jarvis Williams of SURG. "It could also spark someone to explore what this industry has to offer and different levels of positions in many different restaurant groups. I feel compelled to participate because I may reach a few students that can hear and see my work and be an inspiration to them."

A launchpad for success

There are numerous levels through which ProStart offers students a platform for success. In addition to classroom and hands-on work, internships will provide students with additional opportunities to gain real life experience in restaurants, food service operations and food production facilities.

Students who complete the program are also eligible to complete the national examinations to earn college credit for their work, a boon for those who wish to pursue the interest further in a culinary program. They also earn earn ServSafe certification, a nationally accredited food safety certification for managers, employees and restaurant inspectors, which helps to create an effective launching pad for students to enter entry level careers in hospitality.

"The food industry is a field expected to experience higher than average wages moving forward," says Tagliavia, "And restaurant industry jobs count for one in ten jobs in Wisconsin. Through ProStart, we’ll be able to provide transferable skills that these students can use immediately after graduation."

And the benefits don’t end there.

"I really want to thank all the people who worked hard to make this happen," notes Ersel. "I think this is a tremendous opportunity to show Milwaukee that organized coalitions can have immediate impact on the future of Milwaukee. I signed up for this in July with recognition of the fact that we have a young populous that needs attention and positive reinforcement. Recent events have pushed that realization to the forefront but I think that most of us know we've been in need of something like this for a long, long time."

In the end, the program will offer up a boon to the restaurant industry, which continues to experiece a severe shortage of qualified, eager workers.

"We really need more skilled labor for Milwaukee's restaurant scene," notes ProStart mentor Chef Thomas Hauck of c.1880 and Karl Ratzsch's, "If I can help train a class of would be prep cooks, I'm all for it."

Photo: Kevin Miyazaki

"I also love Milwaukee – all of my city, not just the parts in which I live, work and play with my kids – and if I can have a chance to make even the smallest impact in a part of the community that needs help and open up new opportunities to kids there, i think that's how a change can start to take hold, one class of kids at a time."

Support MPS ProStart

On Sept. 28 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., MPS will host Entree to Excellence, a fund-raising gala with the aim of raising $500,000 to seed and sustain the program, as well as to cover upgrades to the commercial kitchen lab spaces at each of the four participating high schools.

The gala, hosted by MPS and Bartolotta restaurants and chaired by Don Layden Jr. of Baird Capital and Quarles & Brady and Rayna Andrews of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, will be held at Discovery World, 500 N. Harbor Dr., and will feature dinner and wine pairings underwritten by the Bartolotta Restaurant Group’s Care-a-lotta program.

"I spent the last seven years of my life with and in urban education," says Bartolotta. "And this really marks a new day with MPS. It’s so exciting to work together with them on this. And if anyone is questioning whether or not supporting an initiative with MPS, it’s now."

For more information about Entree to Excellence or to purchase tickets, visit mpsgala.org on before Sept. 7. For sponsorship opportunities, please contact Tony Tagliavia at (414) 475-8401.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.