SOUTH PORTLAND – Succulent duck draped in a port wine sauce or tender lamb served with a tangy mint chutney.

Crisp salads drizzled with citrus vinaigrette or Stilton blue cheese dressings. Bakery favorites such as moist banana bread or caramel-soaked bread pudding.

Gourmet offerings like these are now available evenings in the public dining room of the culinary arts program at Southern Maine Community College.

The program recently expanded dining room service beyond Wednesday, Thursday and Friday lunches to accommodate growing student enrollment and to reach a wider range of customers, said Chef Anthony Poulin, the chairman of the department.

The dining room, with expansive views of Casco Bay and Portland Head Light, is now open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. Reservations are recommended for the 11:45 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. seatings.

The dining room offers a different four-course menu each day, with several options for each course. The menus usually have an ethnic or regional theme. The cost is $12 per person.

Instructors and students in the 52-year-old culinary arts program say the struggling economy and the rise of TV celebrity chefs are behind a 30 percent enrollment increase in the last three years.

“The No. 1 driver is jobs,” said Chef Wilfred Beriau, a professor and former department chairman. “People are recognizing that food service is thriving in Maine, especially as part of the tourism industry. No. 2 is the Food Channel and all of the cooking shows on television. It’s showing people the color and excitement of food as an industry.”

Beriau and other instructors acknowledge that the food service industry can be tough and few cooks wind up with TV shows and book deals like Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain. Various surveys suggest that about one-quarter of all restaurants fail within one year of opening; about half fail within three years.

Still, the food service industry shows growth potential. The number of chefs, cooks, managers and food-preparation workers is expected to increase 8 percent over the next several years, from 3.9 million jobs in 2008 to 4.2 million jobs in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Annual salaries range from $14,000 to $70,000, depending on education, experience and responsibility levels.

Sarah Mercier, 20, of Athens, is one of 230 students in SMCC’s culinary arts program. She transferred after studying mathematics for two years at the University of Maine.

“Everyone needs to eat, so you’re always going to be able to find a job,” Mercier said. “I actually wanted to do this all along because I enjoy cooking a lot. I came here after I realized that studying math wasn’t as great as I thought it would be. I love having classes that I can actually do something and not just sit and listen to lectures.”

Students say cost and quality are major factors in choosing SMCC’s culinary arts program. A state resident can get an associate degree at SMCC for $6,600 in tuition, compared to about $48,000 at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and $42,000 at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston.

“This is one of the best schools for the price,” said James Bowser, 21, of Westbrook. He planned to attend the CIA until his mother lost her job last year. When he graduates in May, he hopes to continue his education at the CIA and then go to work on a cruise ship.

“I hear it’s a great way to see the world,” Bowser said. “Eventually, I want to be a culinary instructor.”

SMCC added evening sessions of two upper-level courses — advanced cooking specialties and dining room management — to keep class sizes down. Students in those courses staff the kitchen and dining room for lunch and dinner service. Students in introductory cooking and baking classes also help to prepare some of the food served in the dining room.

“It’s a lot less stressful (than working in a real restaurant), but it gives you a similar experience,” said Samantha St. Germain, 21, of Oakland, while peeling potatoes for British-style fish and chips. She’s a second-year student who has held several food-service jobs, including a recent internship at Cinque Terre in Portland. In the future, she plans to open an inn.

Rosa Libby also has worked in a few casual-style restaurants. Now she’s wearing a white shirt and black tie and waiting on tables as a student in Beriau’s dining room management class.

“The demands on the servers here are a little higher,” Libby said. “This is white-tablecloth dining. You’re here for each and every guest. Your job is to make sure their dining experience is the best they can imagine.”

Beriau and other instructors circulate in the dining room and talk with guests, making sure service and food are up to snuff.

“I go around and ask how the food is,” said Jeff Boardman, who teaches one of the advanced cooking specialties classes. “If there’s a problem, we address it. We actually get few complaints.”

Dinner guests say they come for the gourmet offerings, knockout ocean views and attentive service.

“The duck was succulent and the service was superb,” Ann Marie Cady of Portland said as she polished off dessert.

Cady and six friends had prime window seats for a recent gathering of 1959 graduates of the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. It was their first visit to the culinary arts dining room and all gave it rave reviews.

“I think we found our new meeting spot,” said Nancyann Blodgett of South Portland.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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