SOUTH OGDEN -- Jordan Townsend used a long steel paddle to slide students' pizzas into the brick pizza oven, heated with red oak to more than 500 degrees.
Two or three minutes later, Townsend used a different paddle to draw out the golden disks, topped with fresh ground tomatoes, bubbling cheese, and sprinklings of olives, roasted vegetables, meats and cheeses.
"I love food," said Townsend, 20. "I love to take something so simple, and change it, and make it something people enjoy and something that brings people together. I love that cooking always keeps my mind open to new possibilities."
Townsend, two years out of the ProStart culinary program at Layton's Northridge High School, shared pizza tips and his passion for the field on Tuesday when 17 students from Northridge's current ProStart class spent the day on a learning field trip to South Ogden's Zucca Trattoria, owned by chef Elio Scanu.
The chef is a longtime supporter of ProStart, a national program that exposes high school students to careers in the restaurant and hospitality fields. Scanu has welcomed classes to his kitchen since 2005, back when he was executive chef at Snowbasin.
"I like to teach, and it's a very important part of the profession," said Scanu, who has also worked in Europe and South America, among other places. "We talk about careers and my recommendations. We show students around, and we cook."
The students, guided by Townsend, first baked their own lunches. For desert, Northridge High graduate Austin Shimada, 20, taught students to fill cannoli shells with a sweetened, whipped cream.
"I love the satisfaction people get from eating very high quality food," Shimada said. "I love artful cooking, and working as a team. Working here has been the opportunity of a lifetime."
Friends Townsend and Shimada plan to start their own restaurant some day, which, for now, they jokingly call Two Guys from Northridge. The friends worked their way through the ranks, washing dishes, then doing prep work for the cooks, then making salads and deserts. Now, Shimada organizes and stocks the restaurant's market area case, and Townsend helps make the gourmet meals served to customers who visit Zucca's.
"You really have to want it and you really have to work for it," Townsend told students. "It's hard. I've worked hard to get where I am, and I've got years of hard work and learning ahead."
Scanu dished out more reality.
"You have to be willing to accept criticism," the chef said. "We are only as good as our next dish. Everything we have done in the past is done. Understand that tomorrow is a new day, and everything starts from scratch."
The national ProStart program, sponsored in part by the National Restaurant Association, is offered at 32 Utah schools, teacher Joy Poulson said. Student competitions are scheduled, and scholarships are offered. At Northridge, students meet two hours ever other day for the two-year program, run a small cafe for teachers, and take on catering projects including a seated holiday meal for 150.
"They really devote a big chunk of their high school career to ProStart," Poulson said. "They work very hard. Sometimes they find out they don't like cooking, but they do enjoy management. Some think they will finish high school and go straight to being on TV cooking competitions, and this program shows them the reality."
Myrisa Graven, 18, said her love of baking drew her into the ProStart program. She has learned cooking is not her passion, but she hopes to own her own small bakery some day, and to work in the hospitality field.
"I enjoy visiting with customers," Myrisa said. "I'm going to study accounting in the fall. ProStart has opened my eyes to the options. It's been the greatest experience."
ProStart student Austin Bradford, 17, worked last summer at Zucca's.
"I came in at 7 or 8 in the morning to grind tomatoes, prep and get things ready," he said. "I love cooking and I learned a lot about food, but it got a little repetitive," he said. "I left when school started so I could be in the school play and serve as my senior class vice president."
Austin said working at Zucca's increased his appreciation for fine food, but confessed he probably wouldn't turn down a delivery pizza.
"I'm a teenage boy and we will eat almost anything," Austin joked. "But I've picked up a lot of skills here and in ProStart that I will use the rest of my life."