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ProStart Instructor Mary Levinski Gets Her Students Ready for the Industry

Mary Levinski caters to her students' interests, whether it’s actually catering, restaurant management, marketing or creating balanced meals.

It’s summer, which is when you typically don’t find high school teachers hanging out in venues where teens collect en masse. But here was Mary Levinski spending a chilly day in mid-June at the county fairgrounds in Litchfield, supervising a group of teens, including her nephew, selling walking tacos and coffee to the young adults participating in the American Cancer Association’s Relay for Life fundraiser, as well as community members who showed their support by making the trek to the fairgrounds for lunch. 

It’s an event Levinski and her sisters do every year in memory of their mother.

I was armed with only a name when I went hunting for Levinski at the crowded fairgrounds, but I had no trouble finding her. One, everyone I asked knew her and where she’d be, and two, she thoughtfully wore her white chef coat with the lime-green ProStart logo above the pocket. 

Levinski has a can-do attitude and an extremely affable personality. There’s no doubt that if her glass ever got half empty, she immediately go fill it up. 

She grew up on a farm in a small town in Minnesota, where she participated in 4-H for 13 years. 

“Food was my field, canning and nutrition,” she says. She’s now a Master Food Preserver, a designation for someone who has completed the coursework on food safety and USDA guidelines for canning and drying food. “Growing up on a farm, we canned everything in the garden,” she says. Now she even cans the tougher cuts of meat, such as deer, and cheaper cuts of beef. She uses her “meat in a jar” to make comfort food quickly—just pour a jar over rice or mashed potatoes and you’ve got a meal fit for two busy people. 

Levinski has always liked education, but when she accepted a scholarship at the University of Wisconsin, "I thought it was in food science, but instead it was home ec," she explains. To change course would have meant forfeiting the scholarship, a move that wasn't necessary because she learned she liked the direction the home ec major was taking her. 

A natural teacher, Levinski instructs kids in her two favorite subjects—quilting and cooking—at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School. Quilting falls under the requirement for an art class. But the cooking classes she’s teaching aren’t the same as the consumer science classes she started out instructing.

It’s not about teaching boys and girls how to feed themselves once their mothers or fathers are no longer around to do it. As part of the national ProStart program, her students are earning high school—and sometimes college—credit, as well as the skills to get a job in a kitchen or any position in a hospitality company. The catch phrase on the National Restaurant Association website is: “a nationwide high school program that unites the classroom and industry to help students get a taste for success in an industry that is hungry for talent.”

As the for-profit culinary schools in the area continue to close and cancel classes, this type of high school training is becoming a saving grace for kitchens around the country. The burden of training workers who sometimes participate in revolving door workplaces is lessened by employing students who have been taught both skills and expectations. 

Levinski is especially proud that one of her students quickly rose to the executive chef position at a fine-dining restaurant in Duluth. She ticks off on her fingers the other students who have gone on to fill various positions in the hospitality industry both as jobs while they attend college and as careers.

Teens can be challenging, but “I love teenagers,” she enthuses. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with them, she admits, but she’s more than willing to give her all to the cause. 

In 2007, when the ProStart program was being considered by Minnesota districts, Sauk Rapids-Rice was the first school to get on board, she says. The first year they ran it as a two-semester class and just 18 students signed up. The next year they had 45 students interested in taking it and now the program is running at capacity at 90 students, and they’ve added a second year of course work. “The facilities limit us to one teacher,” she says, adding that it means they’re also turning away 90 more students.

Studies show that 75 percent of high school or college students will work in the foodservice industry at some point, she says. If students earn a food handler card through ProStart they can come in at a higher wage (because they’re coming in with experience), and at the same time, the restaurant benefits  by saving money on training, she points out. These kids also know that it's hard work and that there's a progression to working your way up the ladder.

Her classes are popular, she contends, because rather than sit and watch, students get to do and move. One day they may be doing classwork and the next one catering a 75-person dinner. About 25 percent have gone into the hospitality industry as a career, she says. 

Students run the gamut from “kids who like to eat” to those who like working with the public or want the creativity that cooking offers. 

“We have a student who wants to do event planning so she’ll be our event planner for catering,” Levinski says. “I like to expose them to all different opportunities.”

To that end, she’s not shy about asking industry professionals she meets for field trip opportunities. They went to Ranchers Legacy, for instance, so that students could see how meat is cut and processed. They toured the Marquette Hotel, where they met everyone from the housekeeping staff to the bookkeeper to line cooks to management. “They talked about how they got where they are now,” she says. 

Her most popular guest speaker was TV’s 2012 "Chopped" champion, Jean-Louis Gerin. Levinski had met him at one of ProStart’s national trainings and asked him if he was ever in Minnesota if he’d come visit her class. It never hurts to ask is her mantra when it comes to offering her kids a varied and rich learning experience. 

Gerin did visit her class and “the kids loved it,” she says. “He had a heavy French accent,” which upped his credibility immensely. They watched the episode before he spoke, and what the students especially loved, she says, was Gerin’s mini-tirade on Americans' love of sugary salad dressings. Apparently, sugar is better served in pastries—and less of it, much less.

While the Food Network given her great guest speakers, it has made her job more challenging, she adds, because it's glamorized the industry by failing to show all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. “Kids want jobs that aren’t physically demanding but that pay well,” she says. She tells them: “It’s not about the money it’s about the passion. If you enjoy your work, you’ll be happy.”

That same advice applied to her career, because “the joy of my job changed when we switched to ProStart. It’s hands-on exciting.”

Part of that excitement is the competitions. Her students do exceptionally well competing against other high schools and have made it to the national championships more than once. She views the competition as akin to being on the football team or playing hockey. Not all students are athletes, but then not all students can take raw ingredients and turn them into edible art on a plate or demonstrate ninja-like  knife skills. 

“College used to be the big push,” Levinski says, “but now schools are seeing the value of preparing kids for work.” And for an industry that’s hungry for workers, Levinski may be a patron saint. 

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