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National Restaurant Association - Pro chef: Props to ProStart for cooking up career

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Pro chef: Props to ProStart for cooking up career

The executive chef at the Venue Restaurant & Lounge in Lincoln, Neb., has more than 10 years of culinary training and experience. And he’s only 25 years old.

Chef John Benton credits landing his dream job at Venue to real-world experience, plus what he learned in school, along with support from teachers, like Lincoln’s Southwest High School’s ProStart instructor Sherry McCranie, and industry professionals Kim Brown of Sysco and Richard Garcia at Sodexo.

“If I didn’t have ProStart, I wouldn’t be an executive chef at the age of 25 at one of the nicest restaurants in Nebraska,” Benton says. “Participating in the competitions helped me learn to have a good attitude and cool head when something goes wrong – and something always goes wrong. You just have to adjust. And those competitions helped build self-confidence and provided scholarship money to further my education.”

Benton’s passion for the culinary arts has been evident since the ninth grade, when he began entering -- and winning -- cooking competitions. His passion remains unstoppable today.

He began in Southwest’s Level 1 ProStart program, and went on to complete second-level courses at nearby Lincoln High after learning Southwest did not offer the classes. His skills were so good he ended up helping to teach the Level 2 classes and was named Lincoln’s ProStart Student of the Year. By the end of his sophomore year of high school, he was a certified culinarian with the American Culinary Federation, allowing him to start his professional career in Lincoln.

After graduating from high school in 2008, Benton enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. The scholarship money he received from participating in ProStart competitions, combined with a certificate from Southeast Community College’s culinary arts program, also in Lincoln, earned him tuition money and additional college credit. While studying at Johnson & Wales, he also developed a rooftop organic-gardening program that provided fresh vegetables, herbs and edible flowers for the campus.

He completed his freshman year in one summer and then traveled to Germany to pursue his Level 1 sommelier certification. Upon his return, he worked at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront hotel with Sodexo’s Garcia. That’s where he says he really learned about food.

“I tasted everything, smelled everything…figured out what goes with what,” he says. “During my time on the East Coast, I had the opportunity to work at some extraordinary restaurants that honed my skills. I learned about everything from farm-to-table cuisine to charcuterie to fine dining.”

But soon it was time to come back to Lincoln. The opportunity came when he was offered the executive chef position at the Venue. He says he appreciates the trust owners Jeff Barclay and Scott Ritter put in him when they offered him the job.

“It’s hard to get people’s respect when you first start,” he says. ”People think, ‘Who is this kid who looks like he’s 12 running this kitchen?’ But you put your head down and show them you can do it. And it becomes a complete 180. I love the team I have. We’re great teammates.”

Benton says he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now had it not been for ProStart, and he’s paying his good fortune forward as a program judge and mentor in Nebraska.

“My job is to help others grow and develop their skills,” he says. “If I’m not doing that, I’m not doing my job.”

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