Culinary program makes college dining tasty

by Lee Adams

It’s Wednesday and that means it’s lab day for culinary instructor LJ Rich’s classical cuisine students at GTCC. That’s good news for diners who’ve made reservations for lunch at the college’s Joseph S. Koury Hospitality Careers Center. They’ll be getting a gourmet meal for only six bucks. It’s something that takes place every Wednesday and Thursday at lunch and every Thursday at dinner. Dinner is $7.50.

While the class scurries about the kitchen mixing ingredients and warming the ovens a separate class meets in the dining room ‘— the food and beverage class. They’ll be serving today’s guests. Like a group of penguins the black and white clad students huddle together listening carefully to instruction.

The two classes work together ‘— the culinary students cooking the food and the food and beverage class waiting tables. Every student must go through the food and beverage class in the course of studying culinary technology. This is so they’ll know how things operate on the dining room side and why certain dishes work while others don’t fare well with diners.

GTCC’s hospitality career program prepares students to be chefs and restaurant and hotel managers. The Koury Center is equipped with a full-service kitchen on both floors and cooking equipment is in classrooms as well for teaching purposes. As Chef Rush shows off the facilities, he opens the door to a room on the second floor that looks exactly like a hotel room ‘— complete with cheap pictures on the wall. This room, Rush says, helps students learn to know what needs to be in a hotel room and how to recognize potential problems. A student never knows, he says, if he might end up running a hotel one day, and he or she needs to know how such a facility operates.

Culinary students have a wide range of career options ahead. There is the basic culinarian or pastry culinarian that is responsible for preparing foods, the personal chef, the sous chef, pastry chef and executive chef. All of the students that successfully complete the program at GTCC will become American Culinary Federation certified chefs upon graduating. The ACF formed in 1929 to give chefs professional status and recognition and have helped them be seen as an important part of the restaurant business.

But obtaining certification doesn’t come easy. There are daily grades in teamwork, preparation, presentation, creativity sanitation and a strict dress code to name a few. A midterm project consists of a menu including appetizers, entrees and desserts. Menus and ingredients must be carefully typed and proportions presented accurately. Each five minutes late for any course served takes off one letter grade. The final exam includes explanations in basic cooking, sanitation, nutrition, supervisory management and baking.

Each student in the class gets a turn to be the chef of the day. Today it’s Andy Hayes. In a white chef’s coat and hat Hayes makes his way from station to station in the kitchen. It’s his job to make sure everything is being done properly and on time, and today he gets to give orders rather than take them. Chef Rush stays out of the way unless there’s a problem that needs his immediate attention. He likes to let the chef of the day run the whole show and see if he’s capable of handling things.

Hayes has been in the culinary technology program for a year and a half now. He’s always worked in some sort of food service and after what he calls ‘“regular college’” didn’t work out for him he decided to pursue his passion of food at GTCC. This week he’s added a squash, sweet potato and corn chowder to the menu along with paprika chicken and a pumpkin mousse made from leftover pumpkins the class carved for Halloween.

Working on the mouse is student Alita Scales. Scales is the perfect choice for making the desert ‘— she already runs a bakery at her home in Browns Summit. She’s currently in her last class at GTCC and will be ACF certified soon, becoming an official pastry chef in her desert business, Alita’s Southern Cakes.

It’s almost noon now and the dining room is beginning to fill. Tensions are beginning to mount as Hayes has to reheat some foods and the tickets begin to roll in. There’s a group from a culinary school in Russia visiting today as well and the pressure is on.

‘“We need to get cleaned up and ready for service,’” Chef Rush tells his class.

‘“Andy, we got tickets,’” says fellow student Alyssa Sneddon as other students begin filling to go orders. Hayes tries to make sure everything is in order before the barrage.

In the dining room waiters and waitresses busy themselves getting water and sweet tea for patrons and bringing them bread. Just like in a real restaurant they take the order and process it into a computer which them sends a ticket to the kitchen staff.

There’s something noticeably different about this waitstaff even compared to some of the higher-end restaurants one might frequent. Here, every service member wears a big smile and addresses their customers as ‘“Ma’am’” and ‘“Sir.’” No one is left waiting and all are served promptly. What makes it even more amazing is that these students aren’t working for tips. No, in fact they’re paying to serve these customers ‘— paying in tuition costs.

After taking my seat I order the fish of the day. It’s trout covered in an almond crust with broccoli and mashed potatoes. The food is absolutely heavenly, and it’s hard to believe all this is just $6. I have Hayes’ squash, sweet potato and corn chowder as an appetizer and it comes served in a dainty white bowl on a white doily. I eat every drop. The pumpkin mousse comes last and is like a sweet pumpkin pudding, hitting just the right spot and wonderfully complementing a great meal.

After lunch is over the kitchen crew straightens up before meeting back in the classroom. Chef Rush tries a soufflé made by student Meridith Colyer. Rush eats every bite, admitting to me and a few other students that it is better than usual today ‘— everything is just right. But, he says, it’s not perfect. He will never mention perfection, he says, because there would never be any room for improvement if he did. He asks Colyer what she did differently this time, being careful not to give her an ego boost.

Back in the classroom the students sit at long tables eating platefuls of their prepared lunch of the day. Rush has a plate of his own at the head of the class. He asks the students how it went today ‘— what comments did they hear?

Hayes holds up a chocolate bar and a hologram of the Kremlin.

‘“They said it’s the best food they’ve had since they’ve come to America,’” he says of the Russian visitors. Someone gave him the chocolate and the picture out of appreciation as he walked through the dining room to greeting guests.

There were also compliments on the beef, the chicken and raves for the pumpkin mousse. The kitchen ran well, too, Chef Rush says. Why, he asks? Because Hayes ***told*** others what to do in the kitchen, commanding respect and authority, but not in a rude sort of way, Rush says. At this there are a few rolled eyes and some light laughter.

And the soufflé, asks Rush?

‘“I made them perfect, so they came out perfect,’” says Colyer with pride.

Rush says he never said ‘“perfect,’” but Colyer stands her ground to protect the honor of her soufflés.

Next week’s chef has a few ideas he’s batting around but nothing set in stone just yet. With that the class is dismissed and the students head back to the kitchen to make sure everything is tidy.

It’s been another successful day as future chefs, and that’s a college dining room I wouldn’t mind eating in everyday.