Top-Notch Cuisine at Bargain Prices

Top-Notch Cuisine at Bargain Prices

There are dozens of Web sites, thousands of magazine articles, and several TV shows devoted to showing celebrities before they were famous. Most of us love seeing pop stars on shaky camcorders performing in high-school musicals, or movie stars in B-grade horror films.

While watching these wannabes in action can be fun, it’s even better to get a full-sensory experience of future stars in action. Looking for the next Alice Waters or Wolfgang Puck? Numerous culinary school restaurants around the country offer the chance to feel, smell and taste the works of up-and-coming chefs. You may have to wait a little longer for the food, and it may be served by the shaky hand of a pupil on front- of-house duties, but what the students lack in experience, they make up for in charm. And the most compelling part about dining in student-run restaurants (apart from the quality cuisine) is the good feeling you get knowing you’ve helped future chefs hone their craft. Like boastful high-school drama teachers, patrons of teaching restaurants can say “I knew that kid when . . .”

A few things to keep in mind: it’s imperative to make reservations well in advance and to get directions. Some restaurants close for school holidays, others are located in out-of-the-way academic buildings. And all of the restaurants have a strict maximum seating policy, to ease pressure on the chefs-in-training and to ensure that customers have a great meal.

The following list of restaurants is by no means comprehensive, but a sampling of top U.S. culinary school eateries. It’s also worth checking out your local colleges as most culinary programs offer some type of student-made fare, be it a bakery, a canteen or a catering service.

Culinary Institute of America (CIA)
Hyde Park, NY

Twenty-year-old Robert Jester from Maryland is a recent graduate of the CIA Hyde Park, where he worked in three of the school’s four restaurants. Calling each experience, “a big rush,” he says he appreciated the customers who suggested improvements in his creations. “We’re learning,” he admits, “so pointing out what we’ve done wrong makes it worthwhile.”

But Jester is being modest. Food critics rave about the school’s restaurants, and scoring a Saturday-night reservation at any of the four eateries is as difficult as getting into some of Manhattan’s hotspots. And the enthusiasm is well deserved: dining at the CIA is more than a meal. With the gorgeous scenery, local historical attractions and tours of the campus, visiting the CIA is an event. Quality and popularity come at a price: dinner entrees average $25-$30.

After a year in the classroom, students start their practical training in one of the CIA’s bistro-style restaurants: American Bounty Restaurant, which features local Hudson River Valley specialties, or St. Andrew’s Café, which offers sandwiches and pizza. Later, student chefs work on their fine dining skills at Ristorante Caterina de’Medici, specializing in fine Italian food, or at Escoffier Restaurant, serving contemporary French cuisine.

Before entering the kitchens, all students complete a three-week wine and beverage class, which is considered by many students to be the most difficult course at the school. They continue their education on the job, sampling and learning the extensive wine lists at each of CIA’s restaurants. The lists are tailored to each eatery: The Escoffier Restaurant features more French bottlings, while Ristorante Caterina de’Medici carries a wider selection of Italian varieties. And all four of the restaurants sell the annual limited-edition scholarship wines, which help fund the schools’ wine education programs.

Robert Jester’s recommended dish at the Escoffier Restaurant: seared duck breast served with firm polenta and asparagus, and a banana flambé for dessert.

Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY; CIA has four student-run restaurants. tel: 845.471.6608.

The Dining Room at Kendall College School of Culinary Arts
Chicago, IL

For Chad Mellinger, who recently graduated from Kendall, the best part about working at The Dining Room was the chance to create his own specials. The 21-year-old from Illinois says, “I got to put all my skills and flavor profiles together. and found out how my specials would sell in the real world.”

The Dining Room’s set menu of contemporary French and American cuisine garners excellent reviews from Chicago foodies, but it’s the daily student specials like those created by Mellinger that distinguish the experience. The chef-to-be says they are not only given freedom in the dishes they choose to create, but are encouraged to experiment with unusual ingredients: “On the second-to-last day of class, I decided to create the most luxurious meal possible: I braised alligator meat, then put it in a Champagne batter and served it with a foie gras applesauce. We sold out of the dish!”

The restaurant only recently added a wine list, so the cellar is still a work in progress. If you have a special bottle you’d like to drink, you can bring your own, for a modest corkage fee.

The Dining Room’s slogan is “eat someone’s homework,” but customers can play teacher and grade it as well. Student chefs are required to get feedback from every single customer. But, Mellinger points out, “criticism is low… we put out great food here.”

Chad Mellinger’s recommended dish at The Dining Room: an appetizer of crispy shrimp with garlic aioli and chilled horseradish served with sweet cherry tomato compote.

900 N. North Branch, Chicago, IL; tel: 312.752.2328.

New England Culinary Institute (NECI)
Montpelier, VT

Student Travis Swikard is “stoked,” because every day at the New England Culinary Institute is “awesome.” “It’s totally the best school in America,” he states unequivocally.

Like its CIA rival, NECI has a graduated system of student-run restaurants. After three months of classroom training, students start working at casual grilles including The Tavern at the Inn at Essex and Main Street Grill & Bar, the latter of which features a huge Sunday brunch buffet. After a successful apprenticeship in these establishments, students progress to the fine-dining kitchens at Chef’s Table and Butler’s at the Inn at Essex.

 NECI teaching restaurant

Swikard, 22, is from San Diego and is in the second year of his two-year Associate’s degree at the Montpelier campus. He works the day shift at the Main Street Grille & Bar, where, he says, the instructors don’t go easy on the students: “It’s like, totally real.”

Travis says NECI’s natural surroundings inspire the students’ cooking choices, and he frequently forages for wild mushrooms and leeks on the grounds. But he insists that the instructors would never let him serve his own hand-picked fungi in the restaurants, “just in case.”

The wine education at NECI is extensive, and includes classes on varieties, pairings and even point scoring. Student chefs working in the restaurants are prepared to recommend bottles to customers, so the wine lists are robust, and complement regional ingredients.

Travis Swikard’s recommended dish at the Main Street Grill & Bar: Anything with wild chanterelle mushrooms. Also, the student-inspired flatbread, which has a different topping every day, is “always awesome.”

118 Main Street, Montpelier, VT; Essex Campus: 70 Essex Way, Essex Junction, VT; tel: 877.223.6324;

L’Ecole Restaurant at Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Program
Scottsdale, AZ

The Le Cordon Bleu Academy is synonymous with fine French cuisine as well as top-of-the-line cooking and hospitality training, and the Le Cordon Bleu team runs dozens of schools around the country. The Scottsdale Culinary Institute is considered one of the best.

Shannon Everly, 23, is nearing the end of his internship at the Mobile 3- star L’Ecole restaurant, and is thrilled to finally get his hands on the restaurant’s French-American food. He says, “It’s more of a passion than a job for me.”

Everly says one of the most important things he’s learned at L’Ecole is that, according to his instructors, steak is best served medium rare. The native of Iowa says, “we take our meat well-done in the Midwest, but it’s so much better this way.”

And he can recommend a wine to drink with that steak, because students are trained in pairing wine with food. The wine list, like the food, is heavy on French and American offerings.

Everly will be graduating soon, and is optimistic about his career. He says, “It’s huge to say you are Cordon Bleu-trained.”

Shannon Everly’s recommended dish at L’Ecole: Filet mignon (medium rare, of course) served with sweet potato hash and a bulgur wheat salad.

8100 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ; tel: 480.425.3111.

Winston’s at Sullivan University
Louisville, KY

For Justin Diglia, the best and worst part about training at Winston’s is Kentucky Derby time, when spectators flood the restaurant. “We were only three weeks into the internship and we had to do 90 to 100 covers a night,” he says. “But it’s also the most fun time to work.”

The 22-year-old student completed his culinary arts degree at Sullivan University and decided to stay on for an MBA. He now works as a bartender at Winston’s but remembers his culinary internship fondly: “Just working under our executive chef, John Castro, was amazing. We had one of the best mentors in the world.”

Unlike pupils at other training restaurants, the students at Winston’s don’t perform front-of-house duties. They work solely in the kitchen, preparing the contemporary American cuisine with organically grown produce. Though the wine list is good, the recommended drink at this Kentucky establishment is, of course, a sublime mint julep.

And even when the restaurant is full of horse race-loving patrons, Diglia promises “The student chefs will never go under. The professional chefs will jump on the line and make sure all the food gets out on time.”

Justin Diglia’s recommended dish at Winston’s: Mojo Risin’, a selection of seafood topped with a “mojo sauce” made from cilantro, green pepper and garlic. The dish is cooked inside a foil bag that is opened tableside.

3101 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY; tel: 502.456.0980.

Carême Room at California Culinary Academy (CCA)
San Francisco, CA

Caroline Carter remembers the precise moment she decided to become a chef: after seeing the enormous mounds of food served at the gourmet lunch buffet at CCA’s Carême Room. But even more impressive than the food, says Carter, was the “sense of earnestness” she felt from the students.

So the 29-year-old from San Francisco enrolled at the California Culinary Academy’s Le Cordon Bleu program, and joined the ranks of the earnest, eventually working in the restaurant.

The Carême room is unique among training restaurants. Most days students prepare sit-down, seasonal menus served at the table. But on Thursdays and Fridays, the restaurant is transformed by huge, mirrored displays of cold appetizers, mountains of pastries and a long line of hot entrees. The student chefs prepare this all-you-can-eat buffet, and stand at attention, fresh-faced and eager for feedback.

“The customer interaction was actually one of my favorite parts of training,” says Carter. “We take such pride in our work, and we love it when people come back for seconds.”

By the time they’re cooking at Carême Room, the students have already completed nine months of classroom training, including a six-week wine course. The restaurant’s wine menu is decent, though with the ever-changing buffet, it’s not always easy to find the best pairing. Instead, the focus here is firmly on the food.

Caroline Carter’s recommended dish at Carême Room: Elegant swan-shaped crème puffs, served at the buffet.

625 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA; tel: 415.216 .4329.

Published on October 1, 2006

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