A Classroom Café and Culinary Competition

By April Pearson

Hampton-Dumont (H-D-CAL) High School serves up fine dining experiences for patrons and students alike. Bulldog Café is the school’s in-house restaurant, and ProStart is the award-winning restaurant management and culinary program. What started in 2008 and grew under the vision and leadership of Jane Hoegh has become a community point of pride now led by Leslie Pralle Osborn. Whether students want to work in a restaurant to support themselves through college or plan on managing or opening their own restaurant someday, they’re learning the skills they need to pay the bills.


Bulldog Café

Open for business two Fridays a month, Bulldog Café is a fully licensed restaurant operating out of the H-D-CAL High School. Students manage everything from start to finish — from reservations to cleanup. They transform their classroom into a fine dining establishment, complete with cloth napkins and seasonal decor. They determine the menu and prepare the meals. They greet guests, serve dishes and split tips at the end of the day.  
In the off-weeks, students prepare easy, family-friendly freezer meals to sell to the community. They often base their menu on fresh, seasonal ingredients that have been donated, grown onsite or purchased locally.
“Teachers who garden brought in a ton of produce at the beginning of the year,” says Pralle Osborn. “We’ve had egg, pear and apple donations — we did a lot of apple crisps and pies.” The H-D-CAL ag department has a full greenhouse to help supply the program with vegetables, and the rest is purchased from local producers and distributors like Martin Brothers, Fareway, Healthy Harvest, Koenig’s Acres and Puffer Roske Farms.

Bulldog Café has earned a reputation for serving fresh, delicious, wholesome meals to appreciative diners who value quality service. It provides excellent training for those interested in working in a restaurant. But for those with dreams of having their own restaurant, ProStart offers a head start.   

ProStart Competition

The ProStart program is divided into two teams — restaurant management and culinary — which compete at the state level in Des Moines every February.
The five-member restaurant management team prepares a proposal to present to judges in a Shark Tank-like competition against seven other Iowa schools. Students must understand every detail of their plan and be able to think on their feet as they defend their proposal to the judges, who evaluate them on their menu, costs, operations and floor plan.
This year, H-D-CAL’s proposal focused on creating a sustainable food culture, eliminating food waste and reducing its carbon footprint by sourcing locally. “It was really fun to watch the kids take ownership of that topic,” says Pralle Osborn. “They did a lot of research and explored how to promote healthy living as an environmental cause.”
The culinary team, which also has five members, must plan, present and prepare a three-course meal during a live competition against 10 other Iowa schools. They get 20 minutes to prep and 1 hour to cook, using only two butane burners — no electricity, batteries, fridge or running water. Students are judged on everything from knife skills to sanitation and, of course, taste.
The HD team decided on an Iowa-inspired menu. “We started with a sweetcorn polenta cake with crispy brussels sprouts, pancetta and goat cheese with a maple-Dijon mustard sauce,” says Pralle Osborn. “Then we did a sirloin strip steak with purple potatoes, prosciutto-wrapped green beans and a morel mushroom cream sauce. And for dessert, we did a sweetcorn panna cotta that looks and tastes fantastic.”
So, how did the teams do at State? For the third year in a row, both earned a spot at Nationals — an honor that’s unprecedented in Iowa. The national-level competition occurred in Baltimore in April, where the teams competed against more than 40 other schools from around the country. While neither team placed, they made an impact on the judges.
“For management, the judges loved their emphasis on local food, commitment to community and passion for the environment,” says Pralle Osborn. “For culinary, the judges were very impressed with their sweetcorn panna cotta, which came out perfectly. The kids were absolutely phenomenal and represented Iowa so well!”

A Culinary Community

Bulldog Café and ProStart give culinary-minded kids a place to pursue their passions and make a difference in the world. Four of the six H-D-CAL seniors who competed this year plan to attend culinary institutes upon graduation — a move Pralle Osborn and the community support. “I don’t even know how to explain the level to which people are invested in these programs,” says Pralle Osborn. “It’s the patrons coming to Bulldog Café at every opportunity; it’s the businesses hiring us to cater for them. From individuals to big companies — it is across the board. The judges even commented that the support we have from our community is unreal.”