Buon appetito! Café dishes up experience and good food
Running to the kitchen for some extra parmesan cheese, squeezing filling into a cannoli shell and checking the temperature of the cooked chicken were all things that kept students in the Culinary Arts class busy on May 28. They were experiencing what life is like running a restaurant.
The morning and afternoon classes were divided up between those working in the kitchen, or back of the house, as it’s called in the industry, and those in the front of the house, or in the dining room taking orders and serving the food. They were “working” at Pappa T’s Ristorante and Pizzeria, and diners included four students from several other classes around campus.
Before the guests arrived, students put in what seemed like a full day’s work. There was parsley and lettuce to chop, sauce to purée and fresh lemonade and iced tea to make. Tables needed to be set with tablecloths, napkins and silverware. It was all hands on deck.
“Our kids get to experience working à la carte most of the time, we do a buffet,” Chef Peter Tomaskovic, or Chef T, said. “This time we have extended it. We are having them take orders. We want to get that experience for them.”
This is the first year the “restaurant” has been in operation this year, and students and staff enjoyed coming in to the dining room for a meal over the course of several days.
Guests had a choice of items for three courses. Among them were a fried calamari, mozzarella sticks or a Caesar salad for an appetizer. Entrées included a choice of chicken parmigiana, penne alla vodka or spaghetti and meatballs. Dessert options included gelato, zeppola or cannoli.
“It’s nine o’clock people, we are in good shape,” Chef Tomaskovic announced. The “restaurant” opened at 9:30 a.m. on this day.
A check at the dessert station had him instructing students to plate at least 10 of each type of dessert.
In the meantime, Chef John Damiani instructed another student on how set up ingredients to have them ready to make a Caesar salad.
The morning also included a quick tutorial for the students who were working as servers. They were instructed to introduce themselves, first take drink orders and go back for the appetizer and then the entrée orders.
“Let’s go class!” one culinary student said as the doors opened and students came in for their meal.
From the moment guests were seated, it was as if the “restaurant” staff were running on high speed. Orders were taken and brought to the kitchen, water glasses were refilled and extra napkins brought to tables.
In the kitchen, things were just as busy. The deep fryer was working overtime churning out fried mozzarella and calamari, while the lettuce being mixed with dressing was a blur. Spaghetti was being scooped onto plates, sauce added on top and a piece of chicken placed gently on the side. The number of used pots and pans added up quickly.
As empty dishes were returned to the kitchen, a student rinsed them and sent them through the high powered dishwasher. Cannolis were being filled at a quick clip and last-minute touches added to the desserts, such as whipped topping and a dash of powdered sugar.
Chef Tomaskovic said he took a page from the Culinary Institute of America in order to decide what items would be put on the menu. Students at CIA can drop suggestions off at a kiosk for food they would like to make or be served. The items are counted, and the top contenders are made. He opted to have an Italian theme and offered students throughout campus an opportunity to vote on their top choices, being sure to include dishes that used different cooking methods.
“It really is so complete and gives students a chance to sit down with a tablecloth, silverware,” he said of the guests.
Back in the kitchen, Chef Damiani was letting the cooks know that there is a fine line when cooking mozzarella sticks — if they are left in too long the cheese will begin to melt out.
“Excuse me!” said a student carrying a tray of food as she hustled out of the kitchen, alerting everyone to clear a path.
Just like in any restaurant, there were a few glitches that had to be worked around. For example one guest changed their order and another asked for their chicken to be cooked more.
“See how one item can hold up the line,” Chef Tomaskovic said to the cook, adding that is how it goes at the stove on some days.
“It was good,” one guest said of the surprise meal he had just enjoyed.
“It was fun,” culinary student Stefani Diaz, who waited tables, said as she cleared tables.
Chef Damiani said the department hopes in the future to offer a similar “restaurant” experience for culinary students several times throughout the year.
“It brings to life everything we are doing,” he said.