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I didn't know what to expect. I was standing in a room filled with anxious parents, celebrity chefs and assorted VIPs waiting as a growing buzz of anticipation rapidly filled the room. Something big was about to happen. Suddenly, the doors flew open and a marching band came sweeping into the room horns blowing, cymbals clapping and drums beating, followed by a procession of 350 excited young adults who were beaming and glowing with pride. The opening ceremony for the ProStart Invitational had begun.

As a seasoned veteran of the restaurant industry, I see very little that really catches me off guard. But this, this was a whole new experience. The energy, electricity and inspiration generated by these amazing students during the course of the competition was totally contagious and before it was over, I felt like a kid experiencing the restaurant industry for the very first time all over again.

These students represented 43 states and territories and to win they had to impress judges from all walks of our diverse industry and academia, a competition that is both tough and challenging.

Half the students battled as part of management teams. They had to develop an original restaurant concept from the ground up and apply critical thinking skills to the daily challenges that we as restaurant owners face every day. They then had to present their plan to a panel of judges and answer questions in a public forum, questions that could and would throw some of my best operators. Their grace under pressure was awe-inspiring. I was really getting into this!

The culinary competition was all about creative abilities. Each team had to prepare a three-course meal in just 60 little minutes. But it was about much more than just cooking; these chefs had to develop the menu on a very small budget, present the plan and demonstrate their knife skills before the cooking began. The room was large and there were several teams competing at once as parents, guests and teams of judges stood and watched these highly skilled and very poised competitors battling to the very last second to bring their vision to life. Think of the TV show Chopped intensified by 1,000.

Between battles and presentations, I spent time talking to parents, teachers and students trying to get a better understanding of the program as a whole and was surprised to learn that the NRAEF ProStart Program touches 95,000 students nationwide. I also found out that this program would be impossible without the help of its real unsung heros, the ProStart State Coordinators whose job it is to do battle everyday in support of their kids.

This is the group that finds schools to participate, vendors for supplies, places to practice and businesses to hire students so they can complete their certification. But the hardest, and as I was told most rewarding, part of their job, is to provide as they say on Iron Chef, the secret ingredient, which is that all important support system that lifts the kids up and keeps them strong. These are dedicated hard working people who obviously love what they do.

Before I knew it the big moment had arrived -- time to announce the winners. The Grand Ballroom had been transformed into a gleaming wonderland of glitter and lights filled to the max with elegantly dressed parents, teachers, NRA board members, sponsors, mentors and 350 of the most composed, polite and excited young adults I had ever seen. I was sitting with my home team Illinois and holding my breath right along with them as we sat through dinner and thank you speeches.

Finally when Rob Gifford, executive VP for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, called Dawn Sweeny, the NRA's CEO, up to the stage to announce the awards you could actually hear a collective intake of breath throughout the room. I took one more look at my team wished them luck, and reminded them that just by being there they had already won.

And the truth of the matter is this: It didn't matter who won that competition, there wasn't a loser in the room, the real winner that night was the restaurant industry.

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Marla Topliff
Marla Topliff, president of Rosati’s Pizza, has helped grow the Chicago franchise from 60 stores in 1999 to the 170 national brand that it is today. She supervises all aspects of marketing, customer service, store communications and vendor relationships.
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