The National ProStart Invitational, held every May in Washington, DC, ranks as the premier high school competition around restaurant management and culinary arts. And it doesn’t take long for the grandeur of the restaurant and hospitality industry to dazzle the participating schools—teenagers and adults alike—who travel across the country to vie for the national championship.
Ted Allen, distinguished host of the hit cooking show Chopped, emcees the contest. A wall of candy is constructed for the students to take from at their leisure. Billionaire hotel magnate Richard Marriott poses for photos with participants.
And for the past two years, a collection of students from Peoria Public Schools have won the state championship for the Illinois ProStart Invitational, qualifying them for the national competition in DC. As national competitors, they network with peers from across the country, face off against other state champions, and are exposed to the upper echelon of the culinary and restaurant world.
“Industry greats are there at the opening ceremony, literally high-fiving the kids as they come in,” explains Chef Jitske “Jetty” Miedema, who coordinates the culinary program at Woodruff Career and Technical Center. “How cool is that for the student?” It’s the culmination of a long journey for Miedema and the Woodruff program, which she built from the ground up in tandem with Chef Kevin Roecker.
Seven years ago, when Miedema joined Peoria Public Schools in this role, most culinary programs in the area resembled home economics classes. In her initial year at Woodruff, the program attracted around 35 students and dealt with the most rudimentary cooking instruction—until textbooks arrived and the Woodruff cafeteria could be green-lit as an instructional kitchen.
Today, nearly 100 students are enrolled across two levels of courses. They operate a popular café, receive certification upon completing the course, earn up to nine college credits, compete in the Illinois ProStart and Skills USA competitions, and stand to earn tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. To date, more than $400,000 in scholarship money has been awarded to Peoria Public Schools culinary students in the last seven years, further cementing Woodruff Culinary Arts as one of the premier high school culinary programs in the Midwest.
Much of the program’s success can be linked to Miedema and Roecker’s rigorous instruction and leadership. When incoming juniors and seniors at Manual, Peoria High and Richwoods express interest in the program, Miedema delivers a candid message. “A national certification process is attached to this program,” she notes, “so we’re not going to be sitting around baking cookies all day.”
The first-year culinary course is taught by Miedema, who boasts more than 25 years of international hospitality management and culinary experience. First-year students learn the basics of the kitchen, including kitchen terminology and working with simple proteins and meats, as well as the principles of the hospitality side of the operation. Second-year students work with Chef Roecker—who brings 40 years of his own culinary experience—and go much deeper, upping the difficulty level of food preparation with more complex dishes that require critical thinking and a nimbler approach.
Baked into the normal instructional days is one of the centerpieces of the Woodruff program: the Warrior Way Café. Nearly every Wednesday from October through April, the students operate a lunch café that typically serves more than 200 customers from all over central Illinois. Students are involved in every aspect of the lunch service: building the menu, preparing the food, taking orders, waiting tables, and making sure the paying customers come away from their dining experience satisfied. And those customers are always in for a treat.
Every Warrior Way meal includes three courses covering a wide tapestry of global cuisine. Sometimes the menu is attached to a theme—Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday. In other cases, the food may be influenced by a student’s heritage or the instructors’ heritage. Customers might be in for a beef stroganoff main course one week, and a delectable Cajun gumbo the next. Miedema is adamant that the café’s offerings stack up with just about any other lunch menu in the area. And at $5 a person, you can’t beat the price point.
Building Collaboration and Leadership
The students also spend much of their time preparing for the Illinois ProStart competition, and in recent years, its national counterpart as well. The ProStart Invitational is split into two divisions, a culinary team and the restaurant management team. While Woodruff has placed fourth in the state in the culinary division the last two years, it’s really excelled in the restaurant management division.
The management team reigns as the back-to-back state champion, most recently qualifying for nationals with a food truck concept called “Heavenly Dutch,” which would serve waffles and other treats. Propelled by the engaging presence and endearing chemistry of students Gabe Hernandez, Timia Weldy and Keshawna Sledge, the Heavenly Dutch concept earned 11th place at nationals—the highest-ever achievement for any management team from Illinois.
Most of the schools competing for the top spot have programs that are more than two decades old, according to Miedema, making Woodruff’s ascendance even more impressive. The hands-on, experiential learning from operating the café and participating in a competitive environment create a one-of-a-kind educational experience. Miedema estimates that about 20 percent of the students in her program end up in some type of culinary or hospitality program in higher education—or go straight into the workforce in a similar field.
But whether or not they choose a career in the industry, she firmly believes that Woodruff Culinary Arts fosters lifelong skills for the students, who learn to work collaboratively in a non-traditional setting and gradually take on leadership roles to ensure the success of the café and their competitive teams. “They’re getting a good start on being a professional, no matter what profession they go into,” she notes. These skills make Peoria students career-ready and boost their employability on whatever path they choose to take—one of the guiding tenets of Peoria Public Schools, and one the Woodruff culinary program eagerly embraces. PM