By Lenore T. Adkins, AFRO Contributor

Taahir Kelly may be a track star at Roosevelt High School, but nothing makes his face light up more than when he’s talking about all the cooking he’s done at the school through his culinary arts classes.

The high school senior is just one of 300 kids from the D.C. Public Schools enrolled in ProStart, a national, two-year program for high school students that takes a hands-on approach to grooming them for jobs at restaurants or in food service, whether it’s in the front of the house or the back of the house.

Roosevelt High School senior Taahir Kelly, 17, sharpening his knife skills by cutting up an onion. (Courtesy Photo)

ProStart is part of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the National Restaurant Association.

The program seeks to uncover hidden talents and inspire kids who didn’t think working in a restaurant was an option for them, said Amy Saltzman, director of ProStart. If they don’t like cooking, maybe they understand numbers and can work on the business side. Or maybe they’re excited about the supply chain and sustainability.

The kids will be exposed to the fundamentals, all of those options and more.

“ProStart puts you on a career path depending on what aspect of the industry you’re interested in,” Saltzman told the AFRO.

The program returned to D.C. after a hiatus — DCPS students were previously enrolled in the program about a decade ago. Nationally, the program reaches more than 140,000 students in more than 1,800 schools across the United States and several territories.

Locally, a combined 300 students from Roosevelt, Roosevelt STAY and Ballou high schools — all of which are predominantly Black — are expected to start the program in December.

“The culinary sector here in D.C. is thriving and we are excited to prepare DCPS students for the excellent job opportunities in this industry,” DCPS Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander said in an emailed statement. “I thank ProStart and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington for investing in our students, investing in our city, and investing in our future.”

Right now, the students are learning about food safety so they can receive a basic certification before continuing on with the program. This portion of the curriculum started Nov. 5.

Once they get through the program, they’ll have the option of joining the restaurant or foodservice workforce after earning ProStart’s national certificate of achievement, an industry recognized certificate.

They’d enter a booming industry if they opt to remain in D.C. Restaurant and food service jobs accounted for 68,900 jobs here in 2018, representing 9 percent of employment in the District, according to the National Restaurant Association.

That number is expected to climb 6 percent by 2028 for a total of 73,000 jobs in restaurant and food service, according to the association.

“Restaurants are opening constantly and the need for qualified employees is significant here in D.C.,” Saltzman said. “One restaurant closes and another restaurant does what it can to swoop up those employees.”

Part of the curriculum places the kids with mentors within the restaurant and food service industry to learn elevated cooking techniques and how to manage a successful restaurant. They’ll take food-related field trips as well.

Jueneville Dean, the culinary teacher at Roosevelt High School’s culinary academy, is taking students to the farmer’s market at Union Market to learn about fresh produce and KitchenCray Café to hang out with its chef and owner James Robinson.

In the classroom, Dean’s eager to teach them about conscious cuisine and eating healthy, while introducing them to dishes they aren’t as familiar with. For example, her students will take part in lab recipes; one in particular will focus on eggs and their nutritional value and then they’ll make a breakfast quiche and other dishes that’ll let them work on their knife skills.

When Kelly graduates from high school, he plans on attending college on a track scholarship, and working his way through school as a part-time restaurant line cook.

He learned how to cook Ramen noodles at the age of seven and has since made breakfast dishes at home. Most recently, he helped make chicken wings with a mustard marinade for Roosevelt’s homecoming dance and he’s eager to sharpen his skills.

“I like food and you appreciate food more when you make it yourself, because you put hard work into it and then you can sit down and eat it,” Kelly, 17, said.