In the classroom with a ProStart instructor

May 9, 2019

After five years as ProStart educator, Chef Robert Levinsohn has learned a lot about how high school kids learn. “I’ve had a long and varied career in this industry, including time spent teaching adults at the Institute of Culinary Education [ICE, New York],” he says. “High school kids are different, especially today.”

They come into class already knowing a lot about food because they’ve been exposed to all kinds of ethnic dishes, cutting-edge concepts, and technology. “They grew up watching The Food Network, and they share dining experiences through social media.”

Levinsohn shared insights about the high school juniors and seniors he teaches in the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program during the Association’s Centennial kick-off event in late April. More than 50 restaurateurs, consultants, media and Association reps gathered at Unilever Food Solutions in New Jersey, to hear a series of presentations on workforce development and culinary trends.

“Kids today are motivated differently than students from other generations,” Levinsohn says. In his experience, top teen incentives are:

  • Pay. No change there, it’s still a top motivator. But what’s different is students’ sense of their own worth. They apply what they learn through the ProStart program when they’re working in actual foodservice jobs, he says, and it raises them up in the eyes of their managers and chefs. The kids are aware that those skills can parlay into better pay.

    “My students tell me all the time about how they use what they learn in class in their real-world jobs,” says Levinsohn. “When they start their first shift with knife skills, or knowing how to make a stock or mirepoix — it makes an impression on their managers. Students are not afraid to use it to advance themselves.”
  • Respect. It sounds simple, but mutual respect and encouragement go so much farther than raised voices with this generation, Levinsohn says. “In fact, in my experience, students today tune out raised voices — most refuse to respond to that kind of negative reinforcement. I think that’s refreshing, except when I’m trying to warn them about a kitchen flare-up,” he laughs.

    Kids don’t give people in authority respect just because they hold a title; those in charge have to earn respect from the students. “It used to be if you were told to do something by an authority figure, you’d do it,” he adds. “Today, a good instructor will talk about why you do something the way you do — students need to know the ‘why’ behind everything.”
  • Active learning. Students’ attention spans are shorter. “I always say, take your age, add two and that’s the number of minutes anything will hold your attention,” Levinsohn says.

    As a result, he works to shorten ProStart lessons into mini sessions, maybe three in a 54-minute period. He often breaks up the coursework by inviting in guest speakers — everyone from local chefs, to a food stylist and a food journalist — to talk with the students and to expose them to the many related careers open to them in the industry. Field trips too, are an important part of the semester’s activities.

    “Not every student is destined to work in a kitchen or manage a restaurant,” Levinsohn says. “But I use every chance I get to show them that there are other professional careers in the restaurant industry, from nutrition and marketing, to finance and technology — hospitality has opportunities for every interest.”

ProStart is a nationwide, two-year high school program that reaches nearly 150,000 in 1,900 schools across 50 states, Guam and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe and the Pacific. It includes education tracks for both culinary and restaurant management skills.

About Chef Robert Levinsohn

Chef Robert Levinsohn is the culinary instructor for the ProStart program at Paramus High School, Paramus, N.J. He switched from his geology major at Lehigh University to get his degree in restaurant and foodservice management at Syracuse University. He’s had an incredibly diverse career, including a post-collegiate degree from the Culinary Institute of America, New York; working as a test kitchen chef for Saveur magazine; managing marketing campaigns at the Food Group advertising agency; running Flip, Bloomingdale’s popular burger restaurant as general manager; and teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education, New York.