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A lesson in dining: Think culinary schools
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Chicago Tribune (MCT) - My most memorable school lunch involved a glass of Schramsberg bubbly and perfectly grilled scallops.
OK, I also remember a great beef stew in grade school and the Union chili at university, but that's another story.
This story is about school lunches in culinary "laboratories" around the world, those dining rooms and cafes found in schools that offer advanced food and hospitality programs.
That Schramsberg and scallops meal? That was in California's Napa Valley a few miles from the very vineyards that produced the sparkler. It was at a light lunch in the dining room of Greystone, the restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast campus. We didn't have reservations but dropped in _ it was not during the May-to-October high season _ and savored the meal as well as the opportunity to chat with the student servers and the chefs-in-training busy in the open kitchen that dominates the dining room.
There's a certain charm to dining at a restaurant housed in a culinary school, because the tables and kitchens are the training ground for a next generation of chefs. A school in New York's Hudson Valley, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, boasts five restaurants. In Montreal, Institut de Tourisme et d'Hotellerie du Quebec is home to a hotel plus two restaurants. And in Lyon, France, a grand chateau houses a restaurant and hotel institute named for legendary chef Paul Bocuse, who also happens to be its honorary chairman.
For foodies _ as well as road-trippers unsure of where to sit down for supper in an unfamiliar town _ dining at a culinary school can be a refreshing change from chains. Whether it's a school whose sole focus is culinary (i.e. the culinary institute) or a university or community college with a restaurant/hospitality program, the cost of meals may be less pricey than those at other white-tablecloth restaurants in the same area.
At Lumiere, the dining room at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Atlanta some 15 miles east of Atlanta in Tucker, Ga., entree prices top out at $12.95 for seared scallops with saffron risotto. Said Lori Flynn, lead chef instructor, "What you get for the money is amazing."
The Dining Room at Kendall College, a five-minute cab ride from downtown Chicago, offers three-course prix fixe menus (lunch, $18; dinner, $29) and a commanding view of the city's skyline. "We offer a similar experience as far as food goes as a fine-dining restaurant," said Kendall's Amber Cerda. "White tablecloths. Beautiful views."
And a menu, Cerda added, that spotlights local ingredients, from local greens and honey to heirloom beans. Which is another plus: School dining rooms often accent local specialties and ingredients. Lumiere, for example, makes a popular roe-enriched she-crab soup; a recent Greystone menu boasted Monterey Bay squid and Laura Chenel goat cheese.
For diners, there is this too: Schools often encourage students to talk with guests. At Greystone, because the kitchen is open, "all the cooking is done in full view of the diners, (so) it's theater of the culinary art, and diners get up and ask questions," said Greystone's Cate Conniff.
For students, most programs require that they work the front of the house (dining room) as well the back of the house (kitchen), from receptionist and line cook to server and pastry. "Cycling through all the jobs," Conniff said, "helps students see how the pieces of the puzzle work together."
Professionals supervise students (and keep tabs for grades) because, as Atlanta's Flynn noted, "it is a classroom. But service is comparable to and sometimes better than (similar restaurants). We strive for perfection _ but we are students."
That's another bonus for diners: You never know when the kid serving you Schramsberg and scallops may be the next celeb chef, say an Anthony Bourdain or Cat Cora (both grads from the institute in New York) or Kendall grads Shawn McClain (Chicago's Spring, Green Zebra) or Mindy Segal (Mindy's HotChocolate) or Jose Garces (who has four restaurants in Philadelphia and Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago).
IF YOU VISIT A CULINARY SCHOOL ...
TIPS: Culinary-specific schools, universities and community colleges with food/hospitality programs often have dining options open to the public. Some school restaurants are open year-round. Many schools have Web sites with menu updates and reservation-making capabilities; some rely on opentable.com, an online reservation system.
Wine and liquor availability varies by school. Some are BYOB; some charge corkage fees.
Culinary Institute of America, 1946 Campus Drive (U.S. Highway 9), Hyde Park, N.Y.; 845-471-6608
Restaurants: Escoffier, American Bounty, Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, Ristorante Caterina de Medici, St. Andrew's Cafe; ciachef.edu/restaurants
Culinary Institute of America, West Coast Campus, 2555 Main St., St. Helena, Calif.; 707-967-2320
Restaurant: Greystone, ciachef.edu/restaurants
Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Atlanta, 1927 Lakeside Parkway, Tucker, Ga.; 770-723-3507
Restaurant: Lumiere, lumiereatlanta.com
Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts, 900 N. North Branch St., Chicago; 312-752-2328
Restaurant: The Dining Room at Kendall, culinary.kendall.edu
Institut Paul Bocuse, Chateau du Vivier BP 25, 69131 Ecully Cedex, France; 011-33-4-72-18-02-20
Restaurant: Saisons, institutpaulbocuse.com/us
Institut de Toursime et d'Hotellerie du Quebec, Restaurant de l'Institut and Salle Paul-Emile-Levesque, 3535 rue Saint-Denis, Montreal; 514-282-5161 or 800-361-5111 ext. 5161 (Note: for English, press 9)
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Restaurants: Restaurant de l'Institut and Salle Paul-Emile-Levesque, ithq.qc.ca
© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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