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Minneapolis educator receives national award for culinary teacher of the year

After going back to school, Ben Rengstorf launched a pilot program at Minneapolis' Roosevelt H.S. in an effort to educate students about the entire food system.

MINNEAPOLIS — A few years after a Minnesota teacher went back to school to earn a culinary degree, a national culinary training program has named him its teacher of the year.

"It was quite surprising and very humbling," said Ben Rengstorf, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, who started his career a long way from the kitchen.

"I was an English as a learned language teacher," Rengstorf said. 

But after teaching English abroad a few years ago, he had an idea that led to a slight career change.

"In Turkey, where I didn't speak the language, food was a way to connect — and is a way to connect with students no matter what our backgrounds are."

Rengstorf decided to reduce his teaching to part time so he could attend culinary school. Once he graduated, he pitched his principal on the idea of offering culinary classes after school and as part of his ELL courses.

"I was thinking about how I could possibly broaden what I did in education into that space through food, culinary arts and food systems," he said.

Soon, Minneapolis Public Schools agreed to let Rengstorf launch a pilot program for ProStart Culinary Training, a two-year high school curriculum, developed by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation.

The program has grown exponentially every year since.

"This is our Level One class and they are making a fruit crisp, or cobbler of their choice," Rengstorf said as he showed KARE 11 around his classroom on Wednesday. "And they're also making their own ice cream. We'll be eating that on Friday."

The program is supported, in part, by Hospitality Minnesota — and some hungry teachers.

"We do sell food to the teachers on Fridays," Rengstorf said. "We have to raise all of our own money. Our budget just comes through donations and what we can raise through fundraising."

That hasn't stopped the class from thriving. Rengstorf launched a nonprofit, Roosevelt Culinary Arts, to raise those funds for the class and incorporate lessons on sustainability.

"We have an urban farming program as well here, so we work as a department to help the kids understand the entire food system," he said. "So we compost to the urban farm and they provide ingredients to us."

That kind of dedication and creativity is what caught the eyes of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, and it's why his list of students keeps growing.

"I think it's well-deserved," said Zara Ridenour. "He's an absolutely lovely teacher."

"He's very nice to people," Saada Abdulhay said. "He actually opens up a lot to us in class and actually encourages us to be a whole team together."

"I think he definitely deserves it," said Amen Denwiddie. "He taught me a lot of things that I didn't know, and I just really think it's a useful class. It kind of opened my mind to a new idea to maybe look further into cooking and things like that."

Rengstorf says that kind of excitement from his students is what keeps him going.

"I have several students who have now started internships at restaurants," he said. "They are working directly under chefs, learning the business."

And even if most end up cooking for fun, his recipe for that appears to be working, too.

"It's so popular here that we have a waiting list," he said. "That's really gratifying. It's definitely why I'm teaching."

If you'd like to learn more, or donate to, the Roosevelt Culinary Arts, click here.

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