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Preparing for Culinary Competitions

October 27, 2014

By: Jason Hodges, General Manager, Olive Garden

Preparing for Culinary Competitions

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About seven years ago, I was approached by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) asking if I'd be interested in participating in a job shadow day for a ProStart class at Charleston High School in Charleston, Illinois. What started as one simple request has turned into a unique opportunity to coach high school students for culinary competitions.

NRAEF’s ProStart program is in 1,900 high schools across the country. This industry-driven curriculum allows high school students with passions for culinary arts to learn the foundation that can open the doors for fulfilling culinary educations and careers.

The job shadow day for the ProStart classes are at my Olive Garden restaurant in Champaign, Illinois. We give them a tour of the restaurant and allow them to spend time shadowing different roles in the restaurant so they can see why each job is important and how different roles interact with each other. In addition to hosting job shadows, I also like to go to the classroom and provide tips on how to prepare for interviews and build resumes. I also share what the interview process will be like. Some of the high school students have had jobs but many haven’t. This also allows them to ask me questions about my real-world experiences in the industry.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects about my ongoing partnership with the Charleston High School ProStart class is mentoring its competition team. This is a group of about six ProStart students selected to compete in a statewide culinary competition against other ProStart teams in Illinois. We practice in the kitchen at Charleston High School and sometimes even at my restaurant so the students can get used to a commercial kitchen. My role is to encourage and help students develop the skills that they will be judged on, such as knife skills, food prep, communication, safety and sanitation, ingredient costing, and more. Together, we create and write recipes, and I time practice runs so they can get used to the pressure they will face in competition.

After a few months into the school year, the state competition arrives. Within 60 minutes, teams have to prepare three courses that must contain a key ingredient provided ahead of time. Then they must present their menu to a panel of judges and clean their stations. During the actual competition, I cannot participate or communicate with the team, which makes me incredibly anxious.

Every year, I get nervous for them but also incredibly proud. When I first met these students, many didn’t even know how to hold a knife properly. Now, their knife skills are being judged by professional chefs on accuracy and knowledge of cuts, sharpening skills, waste reduction and consistency. It is so exciting to see all the growth that occurs, and many of these students go on to culinary schools. Every school year, I get a new competition team to start over with again and help prepare.

I keep in touch with many students, and some of them even reach back out to me after they are done with school wanting to work at my restaurant. I am humbled that they remember me and want to work with me. It’s great to know that I made an impression, and I feel honored to be able to hire them.

I’ve been with Olive Garden for 16 years. After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in Hospitality & Hotel Management, I started with Olive Garden as a Sales Manager and was promoted to General Manager about 11 years ago. I love giving back to students and my community. Besides ProStart, I also sponsor a Challenger League baseball team. The Challenger League is an organization that allows boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to play baseball alongside other Little League players. I have also presented to Eastern Illinois University’s Hospitality students about Darden and help answer their questions about the industry. My entire Olive Garden team is proud to be part of our community, and I’m excited to help others around me as much as I can.

By: Jason Hodges, General Manager, Olive Garden

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