Summit High School program gives students a love of cooking |

Summit High School program gives students a love of cooking

Rootstalk chef and owner Matt Vawter, from left, and Rootstalk sous chef Cam Baker pose for a photo with members of the 2019 Summit High School ProStart competition team.
Photo from Terri Vantiger

While many Summit High School students spend their days looking forward to math, science or writing classes, other students find themselves excited to work in a kitchen at school.

ProStart, a career and technical education program at the high school, prepares students for a career in the world of food service and hospitality management. The program is run by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation in almost 2,000 high schools across the country.

Terri Vantiger has taught the program at the high school for more than 20 years.

“ProStart is basically an industry-level course where students can come in and they earn a variety of certifications, and they go out into the restaurants and hospitality industry and are mentored by the professionals out there and work alongside the chefs and in the industry,” Vantiger said.

Vantiger teaches students the basics of working in the restaurant industry, including sanitary and safety skills, knife skills and cooking techniques. Once students get a job in the industry, she said they get even more practice to refine their skills.

While students typically work in the classroom as well as with local businesses getting real-word experience as part of the program, it has been more difficult for students to find jobs while attending school amid the pandemic.

Vantiger said she teaches the program because she believes in it and hopes it gives students an advantage in the field.

“It trains them in all sorts of employable skills (like) communication, team work, professionalism, time management — all of those things,” Vantiger said.

Assistant Principal Doug Blake said he uses ProStart as a model for new career tech programs at the school thanks to Vantiger’s expertise and success.

“She’s done a lot of the framework stuff and just built this program from the ground up,” Blake said. “It’s interesting to think how far things have come since typical or traditional home economics classes. This really has a workforce readiness plan to it, guided by industry certifications … community outreach and just building something that is so unique to our community.”

Vantiger said she enjoys seeing students grow and become excited about what they’re learning.

“I love to see the kids who have gone through the program (be) successful in the industry,” she said. “We have students who have graduated from Summit High all over the United States that have gone through ProStart and are using it, so that’s rewarding when that happens.”

Both Blake and Vantiger mentioned Matt Vawter, an alumnus of Summit High’s ProStart program who now owns Rootstalk, a restaurant in Breckenridge.

Vantiger and Blake also said they hope the program can encourage students to support the local industry. Vantiger said ProStart provides the community with a semiskilled workforce — meaning while these students aren’t fully trained chefs, they are well-equipped to help out in a restaurant.

Zarin Shook, a junior in ProStart, said the competitive aspect of the program was a big draw for him. In an ordinary year without a pandemic, students in the program go to Denver to compete against other schools in Colorado.

“Being able to cook with the team was awesome,” Shook said about a past experience competing. “Being able to compete as a team, being able to travel and get to know each other better definitely brings us together.”

Justin Ramirez is also a junior in the program who served as captain of the competitive team last year, when he watched and coached his teammates while practicing making dishes on a time crunch.

“It was fun because I love cooking. It’s one of my passions,” Ramirez said. “It helps me a lot mentally, and I just do it when I’m stressed, and it helps me a lot.”

Shook said working with Vantiger has been the most valuable part of his experience since joining the program.

“She was a high-end chef at a restaurant for a long time, and she showed us things that no one else would be able to because no one else has ever been in the same circumstances that she has,” Shook said. “She has a lot of knowledge and a lot of connections and a lot of ways of showing us things we would have never known without her.”

Students also can earn various certifications that can be applied in the industry, including safe food handling, guest service, workforce readiness and more.

The Rachael Ray Foundation recently selected Summit High as one of 27 schools to receive a $5,000 ProStart grant, which Vantiger said she hopes to use to start the ProStart Youth Apprenticeship. This would give students the opportunity to gain college credit for their efforts in ProStart through an in-class, technical education combined with training in the field.

Sam Reed, another junior in ProStart, said the program has allowed him to eat and cook dishes he’d never even heard of before.

“I’ve made new friends in the class. I’ve learned a lot of viable cooking skills throughout, and I just want to continue my knowledge of cooking throughout high school and then beyond,” Reed said. “I’ve broadened my horizon of cooking and food because of the class, so I think that’s been a really neat experience.”

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