By Lisa Shrewsberry
“Yo, are you tired of eatin’ at the crib? Come on down to… ‘Picnic in the House’!”
That’s how Charles “Big” Hill (aka ‘Big Hill’) set the stage for his four fellow Beckley Academy of Careers and Technology students who joined him in bringing down the house — from a culinary management perspective, that is.
Their restaurant concept, a hypoallergenic restaurant alternative to the traditional outdoor picnic, aptly named “Picnic in the House,” took top honors for the Management portion of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Hospitality Education and Training (WV HEAT) ProStart Hospitality Cup competition, held earlier this month in Morgantown.
Teamwork and a shared sense of direction have positioned the quintet well for nationals, the 12th Annual ProStart Invitational happening April 19-21 in Baltimore. Until the ultimate competition, they’ll be working with local professionals to perfect their presentation for capturing their share of thousands of dollars each in culinary school scholarships, adding to the approximately $5,000 apiece earned as a result of their state win.
“I am allergic to everything. To trees, grass, animals. I can’t go on picnics,” admits Woodrow Wilson High School senior and ACT student Cailee Goddard. From her condition came the concept for Picnic in the House, chosen from among the class entries by ACT culinary program adviser, Lesa Spears, to advance to the state competition.
Goddard is quick to volley back praise, crediting her team with development and the courage it took to present before an esteemed group of judges, among them hospitality king and former director of Food and Beverage at The Greenbrier resort, Chef Rod Stoner.
“We were sitting in chairs before we got up to present. We all held hands and prayed,” recounts Goddard.
Spears points out Stoner’s comment following judging, which summarized common opinion of their winning restaurant concept: “I want to go there.”
If the average brainstorming session equates the need for an umbrella, these students demand an ark. A repurposed Victorian-style house will do. Picnic in the House, by student design, would serve food in picnic baskets from a set menu of modestly priced picnic fare — fried chicken, sub sandwiches, BBQs as entrees, along with the customer’s selection of sides, like macaroni salad and baked beans. Food could be enjoyed inside a refurbished home-turned-restaurant (hence, In the House) or grab-and-go style for outdoor picnicking.
Two detailed floors include an event room and game area with corn hole and ladder ball and other activities, paying the greatest attention to hypo-allergenic materials and flourishes with a light footprint, such as bamboo utensils.
“The restaurant is really a way to bring the community together — a place for everyone to enjoy, where they can go and hang out,” student Angelina Johannesen explains.
Chef mentor Kris Siuta, who has worked with Spears and with the ACT ProStart students for eight years, is proud of the program, of its history of competitive wins at the WV HEAT competition, but is especially honored by the group’s most recent coup.
“We’ve taken first place in the culinary competition twice, but this is the first time we’ve won the management portion.”
The Beckley ProStart students have received medals in the top three for either competition each year he and Spears have been involved. He estimates the total scholarship money generated for local students through ACT’s participation in the competition at over $2.5 million dollars.
“The scholarship potential is huge, including full rides to the top culinary schools in the nation. I can’t wait for paybacks one day from one of these guys,” he adds, laughing.
The best way to describe the national ProStart Invitational to someone unfamiliar? What you get when you cross the high school equivalent of Bocuse d’Or with the television show, Shark Tank, only the buy-in is in the form of education dollars.
“The judges have to really want it to be a restaurant. The students have to prove they are ready to build this thing tomorrow.”
Winning teams at the National ProStart Invitational will walk away with their share of $1.4 million in scholarship dollars.
“It’s a very big deal,” Siuta states.
Siuta remembers high school as the time he was first inspired to become a chef, a decision reaping continuous and gainful employment since graduation.
“In the ’80s, before Food Network, a short man in funny pants came out on the stage at my high school. He asked a question: ‘Where in the world does somebody not eat?’ I realized if I could cook a piece of chicken in China, even if I didn’t speak the language, I’d have a job. That sparked in my mind that in culinary, I’d have a job for the rest of my life, wherever I would go.’”
Presently a Sodexo Certified Executive Chef at Raleigh General Hospital, Siuta says both provide him time and
resources to mentor future foodservice professionals.
Siuta and Spears also
appreciate ACT Principal Charles Pack for his contributions. “He is a huge supporter and is always there for us,” says Siuta.
Siuta suggests the Beckley community also get behind the team by helping prepare, if honing a presentation is within their expertise. Local interior designer Margaret Rader has mentored the look of the restaurant within the presentation model.
“We have other pros helping us to tweak it. But we need to take it to the next level. There will be a team there from Nevada (Las Vegas), where they have some of the best chefs in the world helping them. Anyone interested should contact me to see how they can help us.”
The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart
culinary and restaurant management program for students enrolls 95,000 high school students across the nation,
providing them with training to be successful in the restaurant and foodservice industry.
For more information on the ACT ProStart Program, visit www.wvact.net
To learn about how to support/help students with your presentation, graphic design or culinary skills, contact ACT at