More than 300 students are enrolled in new chef-inspired courses at area high schools, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Minnesota Chamber's Business Education Networks program.

The grant is helping Aitkin, Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, Pillager and Staples-Motley high schools enhance their hospitality and culinary programs with a curriculum called ProStart. Funds paid for teacher training, curriculum and classroom kitchen equipment.

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Area resort and restaurant leaders worked with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Central Lakes College, Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection and Hospitality Minnesota to bring the ProStart classes to life.

ProStart is a program developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation that focuses on practical curriculum, industry connections and hands-on work experience. Starting with an overview of the industry, students will learn kitchen essentials, including equipment, sanitation and culinary techniques, as well as critical management skills like communication and customer service. They will also have an opportunity to compete in future cooking competitions with other Minnesota schools, similar to those featured on the Food Network.

Students enrolled in Bridges ProStart classes have the ability to earn a certificate and receive an honor cord and special recognition at high school graduation. Some students may also have the opportunity to participate in state and national competitions and be eligible for industry scholarships, internships and be "the first in line" for jobs. Learn more at

"The Minnesota Chamber's Business Education Network's purpose is to directly connect employers with students so that they know about and can prepare for great jobs and careers available in their communities," said Laura Bordelon, Minnesota Chamber senior vice president for advocacy. "The hospitality industry is such an important part of our economy in northern Minnesota. ProStart and the partners involved in the program will help make sure we have the talent needed for these businesses and the jobs they provide to succeed well into the future."

To establish this new program, instructors from the five schools attended a special, national ProStart training during the summer. The participating schools also benefited from thousands of dollars in kitchen equipment and tools, such as specialized knives, immersion blenders and induction pans.

Another critical component of the Bridges ProStart program is the participation of local industry professionals. Each high school is matched up with chefs and managers from the area's top hospitality businesses, including Kavanaugh's Resort, Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge, Grand View Lodge, Cragun's Resort, Madden's on Gull, Breezy Point Resort and 3 Cheers Hospitality.

Tom Kavanaugh, coordinator of the ProStart program and owner of Kavanaugh's Resort, helped recruit his peers and prepare them for this mentorship role.

"Every chef I called was thrilled to participate," said Kavanaugh. "They want to make a connection with these students and pass along their passion for the profession."

Area resorts and restaurants are eager to find employees who understand what the service industry is all about and who are willing to learn new skills and discover new opportunities.

Students work alongside a professional chef while learning about nutrition, preparing and serving food, and restaurant operation. A heavy emphasis is placed on safety and sanitation, including preparing and serving safe food and preventing accidents and injuries.

The professional mentorship also offers a vital connection for students needing a reference or referral for that first job or an internship. The Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection will launch a new internship program for the summer of 2018 utilizing select hospitality students from these Bridges ProStart classes.

Since this program explores hospitality careers from the kitchen to the business and management side, classroom activities combine interactive and group instruction to help students master management skills.

The ProStart-themed classes are the newest addition within Bridges' Career Academies program. Career Academies are sequential classes taught at a local high school within a defined career pathway that offers knowledge and skills in a specific career field. Each course teaches technical skills, employability skills and includes a real-world business experience.

In addition to the academic enrichment offered by the Career Academies, Bridges' programs also offer career exposure or career experiences to local students, through activities such as business tours, speakers in the classroom, camps, mobile labs or the annual Career Exploration Day. Each of these programs seeks to fundamentally change the way students explore and determine their future careers.

"High school students need to better understand their career options before pursuing a post-secondary education," said Mary Gottsch, executive director of Bridges. "Local businesses and industry are eager to partner with Bridges in an effort to grow a knowledgeable and skilled employee base and positively impact our local economy."

The Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection was developed to better integrate work-based learning between schools and business. Created by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, its education Association and Central Lakes College, Bridges provides leadership to engage and empower students and educational professionals within our local school districts. Bridges is funded in part by: Central Lakes Carl Perkins Consortium Funding, the Initiative Foundation, the National Joint Powers Alliance, the Otto Bremer Foundation and the Region Five Development Commission. For more information about the Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection program, visit, or call 218-822-7117.