What will Generation Z bring to the restaurant industry?
Picture the scene: You’re competing in a national culinary competition. You’re representing your state. You’ve practiced 3 times a week for 5 months.
You travel to the competition and the airline loses one of your bags. You scramble to replace your missing uniform and ingredients to avoid getting disqualified. You make it with 15 minutes to spare.
Now imagine dealing with all of this if you were a teenager 2,600 miles from home.
This is what happened to high school students Luis, Sofia, Odin, and Cassandra who were representing California at the National ProStart Invitational 2019 culinary competition in Washington DC last week, along with their teacher, Chef Kimberly Coelho, and their mentor, Chef Andrew.
And things got even worse on the day of competition. Everything that had worked in practice seemed to go wrong in the set-up: food containers wouldn’t open; items weren’t in the expected location. But the team held it together when it mattered most.
“You have to think on your feet,” Cassandra told me, with a calmness that she presumably wasn’t feeling at the time.
I spoke to the team the day after their competition, and I was fascinated by their story. Everything they shared sat in marked contrast to the rap that millennials and Generation Z get for lacking initiative and expecting parents and teachers to do everything for them.
In fact, as I chatted with the Californian team, five things became apparent:
1) The restaurant industry suits a broad range of personalities.
I asked Chef Coelho how she recruits her four team members from the 150-180 students that she teaches each year. For starters, she gives out a set of ingredients and watches to see what the students do with them: “The students that show attention to detail do better garnishes, for example, while others stand out as having potential for sugar work or chocolate.”
And as the students’ preferences and skills reveal themselves, so too, do their personalities.
“We’re so different,” Luis said. “Two of us are definitely more chilled. Sofia and I get labelled as the divas.” Sofia clarified, “I’m the nice diva.”
“This competition is not for the faint-hearted,” added Luis, emphasizing the commitment to ProStart they all shared. “It’s not something you want to do,” Odin said, “it’s something you need to do.”
Ultimately, Chef Coelho looks for a certain attitude, rather than existing skills, in her students. “I look for the ones that are trainable – the ones that are willing to learn and can take critique,” she said.
2) Young people need to be encouraged into the restaurant industry.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it” – it’s a cliché but it’s true. If young people aren’t shown that the hospitality industry offers a variety of different career paths – and that they are accessible – then they’ll likely go elsewhere, their talents never discovered.
Luis, Sofia, Odin, and Cassandra all chose to study Food Preparation and learn about the restaurant industry for different reasons.
For Odin, it all started with mac and cheese. “I was getting into trouble, and I wasn’t very productive. One day, I was making mac and cheese and decided to substitute the powdered stuff with bechamel that I made myself. That idea of deconstructing food and making it your own – it’s therapeutic and has helped with anxieties and other issues. It has honestly changed my life.”
“I wasn’t motivated at all in high school,” Luis also shared. But when he joined Chef Coehlo’s program “it was like a fire had ignited in me.”
Sofia had focused on sports, but cooking always was central to her life. “I grew up on a farm and was used to making my own milk and cheese. I really love TV shows about cooking. So I decided that Food Prep might be for me and when I saw the other students competing, I just knew I had to do it.”
“I took the class by accident,” Cassandra conceded, but within a couple of months she knew she’d found her path, and her passion and talent secured her a place on the team.
3) Teachers deserve medals.
Chef Kimberly Coelho assembles her competition team from the 150-180 students that she teaches each year at Madison High School in San Diego. The school follows the ProStart curriculum that is managed by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation.
Having worked in restaurants in several countries, Chef Coelho is living proof to her students that the hospitality industry offers fantastic opportunities to young people – travel, continual learning, cooking skills and life skills. The fact that she does so much work for ProStart in her own time (as do many of the ProStart educators) makes her my hero.
4) The restaurant industry is good at giving back.
The team was also supported this year by a mentor, Chef Andrew. He also is an alumni of ProStart: “14 years ago I was here doing this competition. I’d gotten to a good spot in my career and it was important to give back, so I got involved.” The team practices at his restaurant and interns with him. “I really wanted to work on the line and Chef Andrew let me do it,” Luis said.
I asked Chef Andrew how he’d describe ProStart in one word. “Pride,” he said. Luis divulged that Chef Andrew even cried when the team won the State competition and did an impression of his mentor: “He was like, ‘I’m so proud of you guys.’ But he had his sunglasses on.”
5) Generation Y is ready to rock the restaurant industry.
The team developed their menu with the help of both chefs, who asked them questions about what inspires them to draw out ideas. Luis loves working with fish, Oden loves seafood, and they all wanted to include Californian themes. They were also keen to show off kitchen techniques that they learned, including deconstructing a live crab and advanced knife techniques.
So where will their Food Prep studies lead them? Odin wants to go to college and learn the business side. “I’d love to work in a kitchen or own a food stand,” he said, “but college is important, too. I don’t want to get taken advantage of when it comes to hiring and taxes.”
Cassandra also wants to run her own place and agrees that covering the business side with a love for a kitchen is critical. Sofia also has her eyes on college and then travel – learning about new cultures through food.
If the team from Madison High is anything to go by, the restaurant industry is in good hands as Generation Z takes the reins. Thanks to Odin, Cassandra, Luis, Sofia, Chef Coelho and Chef Andrew for sharing their stories with me.