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It Takes a Kitchen to Raise a Chef

Instructor Monique Sabby receives tangible proof ProStart classes work, thanks to Joshua Walbolt.

One of the sweeter moments of the recent Charlie Awards was Elk River ProStart instructor Monique Sabby presenting the award for Rising Star to one of her former students, Joshua Walbolt. It was purely a coincidence, because no one knew who the winner would be until Sabby, along with her co-presenter Mike “Pinto” Pantaleo of Reinhart, called out Walbolt’s name. 

But it was completely apropos since Sabby credits Walbolt with teaching her.

“Josh was my student my first year and I learned from him,” she says. “I’m education trained but what I don’t have is working in the (commercial) kitchen.”

That’s where the benefit of having chef mentors comes in—not to mention savvy students who are ahead of the learning curve. ProStart is a program of the National Restaurant Association, and the Minnesota Restaurant Association heads up the program in Minnesota, which includes helping with fundraising for state and national competitions and finding local chefs to share the real-life experience of working in a kitchen.

Sabby is one of the star instructors, along with Mary Levinski of Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, whose names are linked with ProStart and whose culinary teams seem to be especially adept at winning awards. “The kids are the ones who inspire,” Sabby says. “You need the ones who are into it. Mary and I always say ‘yes,’ because our kids always say ‘yes.’”

She got the job at Elk River High School by applying for what she thought was a teaching position, along with managing a student-run food program, called the Hallway Café. “I wish there was a crazy backstory, but there isn’t,” she says with a laugh. 

But the story does get crazy, once she realized at the interview that what she thought was going to be a cute little two- or more-seat café was a space that could seat 90 people and has two lunch rushes five days a week. “It’s a full restaurant,” she says. “I was scared, but didn’t run—thank goodness.”

There are other student-run cafés in the state ProStart program, including high schools in  Duluth and Rogers. If the restaurants choose to only serve staff, they can make whatever they want, but if they serve students, she points out, they have to follow national nutrition guidelines, which includes significantly upping their math skills. Prices are in line with the school cafeteria. For instance, a chicken flatbread, using a cauliflower base with a little parmesan for the Alfredo sauce, is around $5. They aren’t in competition with the regular cafeteria, she says, because they serve an average of 30 kids a shift, out of a school population of around 1,200 kids. 

Today’s high school students are no longer learning to cook for fun or to impress future life partners. ProStart is the modern-day equivalent of home economics, but instead of focusing on home cooking, the program stresses industry skills. 

“Even in beginning classes we’re talking about knife skills” and mother sauces, she says. 

Some students choose to focus on the business side, but because they rotate through all the different jobs, they get a working knowledge of the hospitality business. 

In an average class, there will be “20 concentrators” of which four will go on to college in that field, she says. But in addition, others will already have the skills to get hired in kitchens for prep work or cooking, or have necessary server fall-backs if their first career is acting or singing. 

Monique Sabby and the Elk River team that finished in second place in the state ProStart Management Competition in 2018.

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