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Filming began last week on the second season of "TeenChef Pro," a Utah-cooking competition that the creator says is entertaining, educational and can launch high school students into restaurant careers.
Yet the show was nearly chopped in March when Gov. Gary Herbert used a line-item veto to nix its $275,000 in state funding. While fun to participate in and watch, the governor questioned whether the cooking show which debuted in 2015 under the name "Teen Chef Masters" was the best use of tax dollars.
The funding loss didn't stand, however, as the Utah Restaurant Association, which produces the show, and its lobbyist, Andrew Stephenson, successfully persuaded the Legislature to restore the money because of the program's educational value.
A minor amount in the overall state budget, Herbert still questions the spending, said Jon Cox, Herbert's communications director. "The governor is supportive of the ProStart Culinary program, but prefers that taxpayer funds be used exclusively for the program's educational endeavors," he said. "Ultimately it's a matter of priorities, and Gov. Herbert believes that future funding for this type of programming should come from private sources."
Behind the scenes, the dispute also raised eyebrows because of personal and business connections of those involved. Stephenson is the son of state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, a senior member of the Legislature, while the producer is Katy Sine, vice president of communications for the Utah Restaurant Association, who has a background in film and uses her production company to create the show, although, she asserts, not for profit.
"People keep trying to find something in this," said Sine, the daughter of restaurant association President Melva Sine, but " it has educational value."
Edutainment • The format of "TeenChef Pro" is familiar to anyone who watches reality TV.
Twelve contestants all of whom have taken Utah's ProStart classes at their respective high schools are divided into three teams and mentored by some of Utah's best chefs. Each episode ,students complete a cooking challenge; judges then taste their food and determine who to send packing.
Along the way there are one-on-one competitions and ways to save contestants who may have had a bad day. But, ultimately, the last student standing at the end of the 13 episodes receives a four-year scholarship worth $80,000 to Johnson & Wales University, one of the country's most prestigious cooking schools.
The tuition is donated, local food companies help stock the pantry and the cast and some of the crew members donate time, including Katy Sine, who created the show and oversees its filming using her REEL People Productions business.
Sine says she does not profit from the production, rather she spends the $275,000 in state funds to rent the studio facilities at Salt Lake Community College's South Campus and pay professional production staff.
"If we had to pay for the show outright, it would be a $1 million production," she said. "We are just operating on a shoestring."
For each episode, contestants participate in challenges that test various concepts from knife skills and butchering to grilling and presentation taught in ProStart, a national program that trains workers for jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry. During the school year, students participate in similar skills competitions. Teachers often use the show to introduce concepts, which Sine says is more enticing for today's video- and tech-savvy students.
"We're trying to be innovative and engage kids and talk to them at their level," she said. "It is inspiring them and giving them tools they need to be successful."
Sine knows of no other state that has taken the ProStart training concepts and competition model and transformed them into a TV show. She said her counterparts nationally "are blown away that Utah is doing this."
Recruitment tool • Kortney Stevens, who will be a senior at Bonneville High School, was one of three dozen students to audition for the upcoming season, which will air Saturday mornings on Fox 13, beginning Sept. 24.
Stevens said the ProStart competitions she participated in during the school year were "so much fun" and she wanted to continue to test both her culinary skills and her ability to think quickly in a stressful environment two things needed when working a professional kitchen.
For the audition, each student had 10 minutes to create a small bite for judges. In her mind, Stevens had planned a recipe to make, but when she looked in the pantry, the ingredients weren't there.
"I had to scratch that and try to pick something else and just go with it," she said. Her knife skills and food a fresh fried tortilla topped with goat cheese and fresh herbs impressed judges and earned her a spot on the show.
Even if she doesn't win the scholarship, the experience will help her land a job.
"TeenChef Pro" is being billed as a way to get more students to consider jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry, which is expected to grow at least 10 percent in the next decade, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The industry also has a high turnover rate, which is why many Utah chefs and restaurant owners support the show, saying it's a new way to encourage students to join the profession and stick.
"We need employees," Sine said, "and we need a well-trained and qualified workforce."
Michael McHenry, co-founder and chief operating officer for Evens Stevens Sandwiches, watched the TV competition last year because one of his employees was a contestant.
When Sine asked him to host Season 2, he jumped at the chance. It is an opportunity not only to bring awareness to his company, but also "show how ripe the job opportunities are in the restaurant industry," he said.
"This is a career opportunity for these individuals," he added. "Not just a shot at the spotlight."