Loretta Kellum was a small girl with a big knife.

Working in precise, efficient chops, the Hammond High Magnet School senior made short work of a large pile of kale as her other ProStart Culinary Team compatriots filed in and got ready for the hourlong challenge ahead.

They worked quickly, measuring out expected ingredients like flour and butter, but also the unexpected, like agar-agar, a white powder similar to gelatin that helps liquid set in a solid form. Teacher Patricia Johnson stood amid the hustle and bustle, watching her four-student team work.

“At first, it takes them, like, hours to get everything together,” she said.

The ProStart program, administered by the National Restaurant Association and the Louisiana Restaurant Association, provides a culinary education to high school juniors and seniors. Forty-five Louisiana schools participate in the program, including Hammond High Magnet, which took top honors at this year’s state ProStart competition and went to nationals in Baltimore on April 27-29. Hammond did not place in the top five this year, Johnson said.

Joining Hammond at the national competition was Rayne High School’s management team, pitching their idea of an Acadiana tapas restaurant, Petit Manger, to the ProStart judges.

“I want to open it so bad,” said Kandice Dequeant, Rayne’s ProStart instructor. “I think this restaurant would make money.” Rayne’s sample menu includes boudin balls with a crawfish dip sauce, king cake bonbons, alligator shish kebab, and oysters wrapped in bacon. Rayne placed third in the national competition.

For the culinary competition, four-person teams assemble a three-course fine dining meal using only their hands and two camp-stove burners. No electric instruments are allowed, and they’re responsible for successfully completing four knife cuts and the butchering of a chicken in addition to their meal. The teams are judged not only on taste, but also on presentation, techniques, food safety and sanitation.

“The skill that these kids have is just amazing,” said Erica Papillion, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. In Louisiana, with its tourism economy, Papillion said ProStart plays an important role in training a culinary workforce.

“We see it as our responsibility to see that the restaurant industry has a workforce for years to come,” she said. “We can do our part to make sure that there are students ready to go to work as soon as they get out of school.”

Over in Hammond, Johnson agrees.

“We’re not training busboys and waiters,” she said. “These guys are going to be the leaders: the restaurant owners, the executive chefs.”

As the students started setting up for competition, moving their own bins and food into the classroom for cooking, they display many of the skills ProStart aims to foster. In addition to the obvious secondary subjects of math, chemistry and science, Johnson’s students showed impressive problem-solving skills, teamwork, and a overall sense of professionalism that belied their age. The group, teacher included, finished each other’s sentences and worked together seamlessly.

Talking about the students’ practice cutting up chickens, Johnson is reminded that skill needs work.

“I’m gonna bring y’all some chickens to cut up leisurely this weekend,” she said. “Then your families can eat them.” Each student nods, never stopping their work.

Today, Hammond’s team would have just minutes to get ready to cook a three-course fine-dining meal for two special guests.

The appetizer was shrimp done in three ways: fried, poached with garlic, and wrapped in bacon, topped with a vegetable pickled during the competition, then settled against a stunning backdrop of bell peppers.

For an entrée, the team would whip up a filet of beef with kale and Porcupine Potatoes, a potato fritter rolled in panko and fried, and the whole served with béarnaise sauce. Dessert was pâte à choux, or puff pastry, fried and filled with strawberries and cream cheese, served with a chocolate drizzle, Chantilly cream, and Strawberry Caviar, strawberry juice mixed with agar-agar and dropped into chilled vegetable oil, forming a bead of intense strawberry flavor.

Kellum, joined by senior Jacob Lutz, junior Lauren Fendlason and junior Alex Boudreaux, worked together with a quiet competence that belied their age, carefully assembling their own mise en place, or putting everything in its place, for the cooking they’d do later. The more work they did, the more professional the students seemed. Amid the obvious secondary school lessons of math, chemistry and reading comprehension were evidence of the deeper life skills the ProStart program aims to teach. Loretta, still wielding her enormous knife, said her mise en place “takes forever.”

Teammate Fendlason responded quickly, “Tell me what you need.” Others rallied to the cause, taking Kellum’s bins into the classroom without being prompted. During the cooking, the team spotted and corrected problems during the process without a hint of attitude or frustration.

Hammond Principal Chad Troxclair said that throughout Hammond’s numerous state and national competitions, judges always remark on the poise of their young chefs.

“Our students were never fazed,” he said. “It’s a testament to being prepared.”

While all ProStart programs aim to cultivate a talented and ready workforce, not all of the state’s programs are geared toward competition. In Donaldsonville, Angela Amedee’s students instead focus on finishing the rigorous ProStart curriculum, which also includes a 400-hour internship and several tests. As a reward, Amedee’s students who completed this year are going on a trip to New York City.

“A lot of my students wouldn’t leave Donaldsonville if not for this,” Amedee said. “They wouldn’t cross the Sunshine Bridge. If I don’t expose them to things outside Donaldsonville, they might not have an opportunity to do those things.”

Amedee said her program averages about 12 students per year, far smaller than Hammond’s 45 and Rayne’s 30-40. Another challenge is Donaldsonville’s economy.

“Our kids come from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said. But it’s not always a hindrance.

“Culinary arts are just natural for them,” Amedee said. “A lot of our students have grown up providing for younger siblings.”

ProStart gives them a chance to see beyond graduation to a career in the culinary industry.

This year, four of Amedee’s students qualify for ProStart certification and the trip to New York, which is scheduled for the end of May. Those students have to raise money for a plane ticket, and will otherwise just need pocket money for meals and souvenirs.

“I hold them accountable for a plane ticket,” Amedee said. “They can give me cupcakes to sell for the ticket. I want you to put the sweat into making this happen for yourself.”

At East Iberville High School, Delores Pointer’s program also eschewed competition this year. But she says the students are still getting a big leg up on building their careers.

“They walk away being able to really work in a restaurant,” Pointer said. And considering eating, as she puts it, “is almost a hobby” in Louisiana, Pointer sees an opportunity for the state’s culinary industry to grow, creating more opportunities for her graduates.

“Those students have more experience than the average Joe; they’ve been trained,” she said.

As with many school programs in the state, Pointer’s program struggles with a lack of funding. To make up for it, she came up with the idea of the ProStart students running a lunch-only cafe.

“Over the years, the money that we raised has allowed us to buy more restaurant-style equipment,” she said. The students prepare a full menu and serve nearby plant workers, school personnel and others. The menu includes appetizers, a special of the day, and their signature dish, Tiger Bait, which is a deep-fried catfish filet served with crawfish etouffée and a stuffed potato, baked potato, or fries.

“The children call it ‘Hell’s Kitchen’,” Pointer said of the cafe, which churns out more than 90 orders during the lunch period.

“I know it’s a lot of work, but you come away with the skills to get you ready,” Pointer said.