AOL’s academic culinary program kicks it up a notch

By Christine Bordelon

With the opening of new restaurants a constant in New Orleans, the Academy of Our Lady (AOL) is staying ahead of the curve to prepare students for careers in the culinary arts through its ProStart certification. The Academy of Our Lady was the first private and Catholic school in the nation to offer the ProStart Program last year, said Tracie Comeaux, a chef and culinary program instructor at AOL since 2016.

“It’s really exciting,” Comeaux said about the Pro-Start curriculum. “It’s fun and interesting and packed full of knowledge for students. It’s a great opportunity to be able to teach this to students.”

This year, for the first time, Comeaux entered a culinary arts team from AOL in the Louisiana Pro-Start program’s management competition.

“They created a restaurant (idea) from the ground up – a complete management concept – for judges (like investors would), and our school won first place,” she said. “We won a culinary cutting board, and the four students who competed won $131,000 in scholarship money to colleges and other programs.”

Comeaux said she was confident her close-knit team would do well in the competition because of their encouragement of one other during preparations and their demeanor entering the competition that even if they didn’t win, they would try harder next year.

“But to win first place, we all were surprised since this was our school’s first time in the program,” she said.

By winning state, the team advanced to the National Invitational in South Carolina April 28-30 where they had a chance to win additional scholarship money. Comeaux said the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation (LRAEF) paid for the trip there.

“We didn’t place, but we got to experience it,” Comeaux said. “The students learned how to better prepare themselves and how putting a little extra effort into something could make a big difference.”

Comeaux, a certified Pro Start instructor, said ProStart is nationally recognized and exposes students to the foundations of restaurant management and culinary arts. When learning the ProStart curriculum, students also complete ServSafe certification. Once the culinary course is mastered, they are both “ServSafe-certified and ProStart-certified and can get a job in any restaurant facility,” Comeaux said. Several of her students already have jobs at local restaurants.

In addition, completion of ProStart II and the 400 required hours means national recognition for students. It is especially beneficial to students who choose to enter culinary school, because it translates to completion of their first year in culinary school.

Program of Academic Majors

AOL began offering its elective Program of Academic majors seven years ago, starting with health care, said Mallory Matute, AOL’s director of admissions. Culinary Arts, Law and Civil Leadership and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors were added in 2013.

ProStart I is open to juniors, and ProStart II will be open to seniors who completed ProStart I, she said. Last year, Comeaux taught two elective baking courses – one in pastries and the other in bread – to 12 students. Four students will return to take additional offerings of international cuisine and general culinary studies this year.

“We’re always trying to broaden our students’ horizons, so we offered international cuisine,” she said. She  hopes in the coming years even more students will take the elective.

Comeaux said she shows off her students’ skills any time she can by having them prepare food and distribute recipes at open house and participate in the chili cook-off, the sweet booth at AOL’s fall festival and the school’s Baskets and Barbecue event. New fundraisers to be added in 2017-18 include a culinary Christmas brunch (Dec. 16) and culinary Easter brunch.

With an associate degree in general culinary studies, a bachelor’s degree in baking and pastries, and experience in the restaurant industry and as a private chef, Comeaux said she tries hard to instill her enthusiasm for the culinary industry in students.

“Sometimes it was hard, but there’s so much satisfaction at the end of the night when you see how all of your efforts have paid off and people enjoyed your food. Thinking how you served 300 people in a short amount of time is super exciting.”

She is thrilled to teach the ProStart program at AOL and encourages any school with the opportunity to add it to their curriculum to do so.

“It’s an excellent chance for students to learn something new and try a different career from what they thought they would do,” she said. “A lot of people think the culinary industry is just chefs, but it’s much more. It’s the hospitality and management that helps the restaurants run. They learn so much more in ProStart if they pursue this career.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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