SOUTH PORTLAND — It was the culinary student’s first meal service in the public dining room of the Culinary Arts department at Southern Maine Community College.

Facing a room full of hungry patrons, the student suddenly froze in his tracks.

Then he started to cry.

“Chef, I can’t do this,” he confided to his instructor, Chef Wilfred R. Beriau.

Beriau put his arms around the student and said, “I love you. Now get back to work.”

That story, one of Beriau’s fondest memories of his time at SMCC, perfectly illustrates the way his former students and colleagues will remember him when he steps down as chair of the departments of Culinary Arts and Lodging & Restaurant Management on June 30: Intimidating, but caring and compassionate. A drill sergeant who pushes his students to their limits, but whose heart expands, Grinch-like, when he talks about them.

After 26 years teaching at SMCC, Beriau has earned a number of nicknames. His students call him Chef, of course, or Chef B, but he is also known as Dr. Evil. The Little General. Napoleon.

Don’t be fooled. There is a lot of love in those sentiments.

Torrey Pollard, 25, calls Beriau “an amazing, amazing teacher” whose retirement will be “a big loss” to the school.

Pollard, who now works at El Rayo in Portland, remembers always coming to Beriau’s class half nervous and half excited. It was the class “you didn’t screw around in. It was all business.”

Students were thrilled when Beriau threw a compliment their way, even something as simple as “that tastes good.”

“I don’t think I have ever wanted to earn the respect of one person more,” said Alex Smith, 25, who will graduate next year. “I wanted so badly for him to notice that I was getting it, that I took what he said to heart and that I was trying it and I wasn’t just another student.

“And I think he inspired that in all sorts of people who probably didn’t even expect that they were going to feel that way about going to school.”

Beriau’s impending retirement has come as something of a surprise, but he had been thinking about it for a while. The opportunity to spend more time with his three grandchildren was a big factor in his decision.

Plus, he did not want to overstay his welcome. Beriau, 66, says he did not want to get to that place where he was dreading coming to work and people were whispering behind his back that it might be time to leave.

“I get up in the morning, and I can’t wait to get here,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the kids. and I absolutely love this institution and everything about it. And all of a sudden, I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time to go.’ “

BROUGHT MILITARY BACKGROUND

Beriau is a former military man who got his start in the culinary world at Bill’s Place, his grandfather’s restaurant on Cape Cod. He later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and ended up at SMCC, in part, for one of the same reasons he is retiring — he wanted to have a family life.

His military background colored his teaching style. Beriau often told his students that people trust culinarians who are neat, clean and well-spoken. He taught them self-discipline, time management and sacrifice.

“Ninety percent on a test may be good, but when you’re in the industry, if you’re only doing your job 90 percent, you’re not doing it,” Beriau said. “A job should be minimally 100 percent of your commitment.”

If a cook-in-training came into class a little too full of himself, Beriau set him to washing pots, the great equalizer. Then he tried to channel the student’s energy and ego in the right direction.

One of Beriau’s biggest mantras has been: If you show up on time, you’re late.

“I try not to teach just cooking, I try to teach lessons and life and how to cope, because this business takes its toll emotionally and physically on people,” Beriau said. “I’ve told my students, ‘You do not choose this business, this business chooses you.’ I’ve tried to make sure their eyes were wide open about the level of commitment they were going to need to really become successful here. And I hope I’ve conveyed that more than anything.

“Plus, some very good cooking skills.”

Beriau never told a student their dish tasted good unless it really did. If a dish was terrible, he’d simply ask if they would be proud to serve it on a restaurant plate, and then show them where they went wrong.

That student who cried? “He went back to work, and by the end of the eight weeks he was one of the best servers I had,” Beriau recalled. “And he thanked me for giving him a little boot, which was really a little affection.”

BARK IS WORSE THAN BITE

Students craved Beriau’s approval from the first day in food prep class, when he had them chop an onion while he watched.

Chef Tony Poulin, a culinary arts instructor, compares his colleague to Chef Skinner in the 2007 film “Ratatouille.” Beriau pushes students hard, Poulin said, but he knows how hard to push.

“Students would come to me, not having taken classes with him yet, and are terrified to sign up for a class with him because they’ve heard these things about him,” Poulin said. “They’ve heard him speak. They’re just paranoid and terrified. I’m like, ‘Relax. His bark’s more than his bite.’ And then after the fact, they’ll come back and say, ‘I can’t believe how silly I was.’ “

Chef Geoffrey Boardman, who will succeed Beriau as chair of the department, credits Beriau with putting the school on the map. The American Culinary Federation named Beriau chef educator of the year in 2008, and the school recently received ACF accreditation thanks in large part to Beriau’s efforts. The school’s enrollment has grown 37 percent in the past three years.

“He is extremely professional,” Boardman said. “He asks for a lot. He demands a lot. He’s a terrier, basically. He just never stops.”

The Maine Restaurant Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Beriau last year. Dick Grotton, president of the MRA, said students “come out of that school far better prepared than students from other schools.”

“He just inspires me so,” Grotton said, “because no matter what audience he’s in front of, it’s always about the kids, and it’s never about Will Beriau.”

Beriau will be flying to Austria this week with 14 students, his last official act as a culinary instructor at the school. It’s a trip he’s been taking for years.

Students work with three different European chefs, making pastries, schnitzel, dumplings and other specialties; visit wineries and distilleries; and generally immerse themselves in the culture.

OFF TO FRANCE

After Austria, Beriau will return home for two weeks. Then he and his wife of 37 years will spend the rest of the summer at the Chateau Autricourt outside Verdun, France, where their daughter and son-in-law, an artist, are developing an art school. Beriau will be the school’s chef.

In retirement, Beriau plans to indulge his love of fly fishing, hunting, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and travel.

But he also hopes he’ll still have a hand in the school somehow, perhaps as a substitute teacher or tutor. He knows that one day this fall, he’ll wake up one morning, feel the tug of the kitchen labs, and think, “What the heck did I do?”

Beriau said what he will miss the most is seeing a group of fresh students on the first day of class, their faces full of promise.

“Those faces,” he said, choking up. “Scared, smiling, full of expectation from me. Knowing that they’re looking for so much, and hoping I could measure up.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]