ProStart influences young lives beyond kitchen: New Jersey culinary team

Passaic County Technical Institute’s ‘family’ of students shows heart, demonstrates success of vocational mentoring in providing life lessons, early-adulthood networking

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program has made tremendous impact in training vocational students for successful careers in the restaurant industry. Educators, chefs and vocational trainers work in tandem to teach students skills that will further their careers and enhance their lives.

This type of training was evident in the team from Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI), a vocational school located in Wayne, New Jersey that competed in the 2023 National ProStart Invitational in Washington, DC.

Passaic’s team of Jose-Alexis Dominguez, Jr., Alenise Perez, Jason Hunter, Michael Reyes, and Tyler Evans exemplify ProStart’s benefits and its impacts on the lives of youth. This team was led by chefs Ron Ossi and Mike Matthews.

Michael (Mike) Reyes was inspired by the love of his grandfather’s food, particularly the blend of American and Hispanic cuisine that he grew up on and his grandfather exposing him to foods outside his comfort zone. This generated excitement and kindled Mike’s desire to go to technical school, where his perseverance has carried him forward. Chefs Ossi and Matthews have only pushed him further to be the best he can be .

Chef Ossi says he started his own culinary career early, “but we weren’t cooking at that level. It is impressive. It’s a lot of hours and it’s a lot of sacrifice. It’s a big commitment to lead them in the journey.” Chef Ossi is glad to have chef Matthews assisting this year. He credits Matthews with the direct, hands-on work and notes that he has turned the novices into cooks.

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A familial influence also ignited Alenise Perez’s interest in cooking. Her grandmother from Puerto Rico, along with her mother, inspired her and provided a base for her future career. They wanted her to learn beyond their own culture, and it worked: Alenise says she is truly passionate about continuing to learn other cultures. Chefs Ossi and Matthews have inspired her. Her team does not just represent colleagues, but a family—they are like brothers, she says. Not surprisingly, the chefs have also pushed Alenise to her limits so she can be prepared to advance in her field and succeed.

Cooking with dad, mother and grandmother led Jason Hunter into the kitchen and out to the grill. Family parties and barbecues set the stage for a future career in foodservice. As he got older, Jason wanted to forge a culinary future, and saw PCTI as his best bet, since his sister had gone there. Jason says the chefs educated and changed him, and his career path is crystal clear due to his experiences at the vocational school.

Tyler Evans’ parents kept him busy in the kitchen cooking or baking, especially on Thanksgiving and other holidays. Later, he would take culinary classes at night and meet like-minded people. After hearing about PCTI, Tyler took the Saturday Academy for 7th and 8th graders. The chef there referred him to the ProStart program. He also says chefs Ossi and Matthews pushed and trained him, and that this group at PCTI has become his network and family. Tyler plans to go to culinary college, for sure.

Jose-Alexis Dominguez began using a kitchen knife at five years old. His stepfather, whom he calls dad, taught him to cook—proper cutting techniques, like fileting a fish. On his mother’s side of the family, growing up was about family get-togethers around Italian meals inspired by his grandmother. Jose would go to her house to artfully prepare meals for her. On his father’s side, the scene was about the barbecue, for which his father was his mentor. After looking at a pamphlet about the PCTI program, and being chosen for a competition about fabricating a chicken, he made it on the team. Jose is still debating which culinary college he will attend, and says the chefs have truly influenced him to continue his culinary career.

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Each young team member has credited both long-term family influence and the PCTI’s programs and chefs for their growth and success. And from the chefs’ perspective, “It has been an honor to be part of this group,” says chef Matthews. “It has been exciting to work with the students. They are special.” In recent months, he has been with the team more than with his own family, chef Matthews admits. “These kids have learned so much. They have a bright future.”

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