February 26, 2010

Meal deal

— SOUTH PORTLAND — It's their first day baking for the public in the Bake Shop Lab (bumper sticker on door: ''Eat Dessert First''), and a group of culinary arts students at Southern Maine Community College are trying to cut a gorgeous carrot cake into a dozen even pieces.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. Brett Cary, of Cape Elizabeth, tastes the mushroom ragout appetizer being prepared for the lunch.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. Mike Bell, of Old Orchard Beach, adds a blueberry orange relish onto a duck confit appetizers being prepared for the lunch.

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''You might have to sacrifice one or two to the gods, and then we'll go from there,'' instructs Chef David Libby, chuckling. ''That means we've got to eat it. We do a lot of sampling in here.''

But something's not right. The cake just isn't cutting properly, and the pieces fall apart.

Donna Piscopo, owner of the Cookie Jar bakery in Cape Elizabeth and a student at SMCC, steps in to lend a hand.

''You know what happened to it?'' she says after a couple of tries. ''The (parchment) paper's stuck up in there. You didn't take the paper off the first layer.''

''Well, we're learning,'' two younger students reply sheepishly in unison, before making a couple of jokes about how the public needs more fiber in their diet.

Indeed, they are learning. And this is basically their first day in school.

This kitchen, and three others, are the classrooms where the school's culinary arts students learn to turn theory into duck confit and wild mushroom vol au vent.

The college offers a public lunch three days a week where the students cook a fine dining-style meal that's served at tables covered in white linen overlooking a delicious view of the Atlantic and Portland Head Light.

And what a meal it is. There are three courses, plus dessert, served a la carte on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a grand buffet on Fridays.

Today's menu is called ''A Taste of France,'' and includes a choice of four entrees: Medallions of Beef, Buerre Maitre D'; Chicken Chasseur; Salmon Bearnaise; and Roast Loin of Pork ''Moutarde.'' All entrees come with a baked stuffed potato and green beans.

The entire meal costs just $12, which is why you'll find a lot of retirees and other folks on a budget in the dining room.

The food can be great, but you have to be willing to put up with mishaps in the kitchen and servers who possibly have never waited on tables before.

''Today is the first day, so there's got to be a lot of forgiveness,'' says Chef Will Beriau, chair of the Culinary Arts Department at SMCC. ''But you know what? It's like fish. They always find their way upstream.''

PRE-GAME PEP TALK

Just before lunch, students wearing black aprons and bow ties gather around Chef Geoff Boardman in the lobby to hear what's on the menu and how it will be prepared so they can answer diners' questions.

But even this is a learning opportunity.

''The Bearnaise sauce -- do you know what Bearnaise sauce is?'' Boardman asks. ''It's the Hollandaise sauce, but with the tarragon reduction and chopped tarragon.''

Down the hall, student cooks are getting ready to plate the first dishes. Freshmen classes did all the prep work in the days preceding this opening-day lunch -- filleted the salmon, cut the tenderloin, and deboned and cured the duck. Seniors do the cooking and make the sauces.

Mike Bell, 24, of Old Orchard Beach, and Robin Tuominen, 19, of Norway are plating the duck confit. Boardman demonstrates spooning a blueberry sauce over the plate of duck and greens: ''Just right across the top and down the side.''

''Pretty,'' Tuominen says.

''Simple,'' Boardman replies. He tells them to get the dish ready as far as they can without the blueberry sauce and orange garnish ''so we can have some plates ready to go out''

''immediately, yessir,'' Bell says, finishing his sentence.

Bell has been working in kitchens since he was 14 and, like a lot of the other students here, works outside of school. His current employer is Blue Sky restaurant in York Beach.

Other students are working at places like Paciarino in Portland, David's 388 and Saltwater Grille in South Portland, Personal Touch Catering, and the Damariscotta River Grill.

Bell wants a degree because he thinks it will make it easier for him to land a job in other places. But he admits that he has learned a lot about terminology and techniques that he didn't know before.

''You can read a recipe and you follow that recipe, you do that recipe over and over, but all you've ever learned is that recipe,'' Bell said. ''But when you learn the technique, you take that recipe and you can change it, you can do whatever you want with it. You can make it 100 percent your own.''

''Order in, two confits,'' shouts Nick Ault, one of two students working as intermediaries between the cooks and the front of the house.

''Where's the fish? How much longer?'' Ault calls across the kitchen as Courtney Clark, a 19-year-old from Brattleboro, Vt., approaches him from behind. Clark wants to be a baker but is working today as a server, so she's holding a plate of salmon that has gone out to the first table and is now coming back.

''This doesn't have sauce on it,'' Clark says.

''Oh, you're right,'' Ault replies, passing the dish back to the cooks. ''We need some Bearnaise on there, please. We're all figuring it out. First table, we just had to screw it up, you know?''

Later, a diner will send back a beef entree because the meat hasn't been cooked properly.

''We, like any other restaurant, bring it right back and bring them brand-new food with a brand-new plate,'' Beriau said.

ALL AGES AND SKILL LEVELS

Some of the students who attend SMCC have never picked up a pot, while others have such a natural affinity for cooking ''it's like they were born with a French knife in their hand,'' Beriau said.

Over the years, Beriau has advised a lot of older students who are going through a career change -- Navy captains, Air Force generals, lawyers, nurses -- and others who have lost their jobs and are looking for other opportunities. Some have bought into Food Network fantasies of being a chef, but Beriau warns them that ''the road to being a chef is paved with 10,000 pounds of potato skins.''

It would be easy to mistake Julie Kagan, 49, for an instructor. She moves around the kitchen like a pro, doing whatever needs to be done and offering to help other cooks.

''I used to be an instructor at MECA,'' Kagan says. ''This was my midlife crisis.''

Kagan taught art history at the Maine College of Art for 18 years. She isn't sure what she wants to do after she graduates -- her husband dreams about opening a bed and breakfast -- but she said culinary school has been invaluable for learning things like how to sear chicken in a big restaurant flattop.

Down in the bake shop lab, Piscopo says she's always wanted to go to culinary school. Her business, the Cookie Jar, is closed right now, but she hopes to open again later this year and add a small cafe, and ''this will give me the skills to be able to do that.''

''Chef Libby said, 'What am I going to teach you?' And I've learned a lot,'' she says. ''What I've learned is more of the cell structure of things and the chemistry. I've always been a hands-on baker, so learning the reason why is fascinating. It's a lot of fun. And he's got little tricks that he's taught me, and I've got little tricks that I've taught him.''

In the bake lab, Libby seems bemused by the way a student has poured raspberry sauce in a zig-zaggy mess over a plate of chocolate angel food cake. ''You want it so the sauce is here, so the guests can take the chocolate cream and taste it this way,'' he says, demonstrating the way it should be done.

''You eat with your eyes, as far as I'm concerned, a good 50 percent of it,'' he adds in an aside to a visitor.

Despite the mix-ups, folks in the dining room seem happy with their food.

Bob and Tina Mortimer of Falmouth come to eat here with their friends, Henry and Barbara Milburn of Cumberland, once a month. ''You can go to restaurants in town and have a bad night,'' Henry Milburn said, ''and we've never really had a really bad meal here.''

Bob Mortimer says they try to engage in conversation with the students to see what their interests are and what they want to do with their careers. And they offer them encouragement.

The food varies, Mortimer says. ''Sometimes it's outstanding; sometimes it could be better.''

Once they dined on the last day before school vacation, when all the students were anxious to leave, and the cooks weren't quite as focused on the details.

Better not tell them about the carrot cake.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. Chauncel Berry, of Sabbatus, adds nuts to the icing of a carrot cake she made for the lunch.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. Donna Piscopo, of South Portland, makes roses of icing while decorating a cake she made for the lunch. Watching her create the delicate flowers is Betsy Hutchins, of Portland.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. Crystal Cassette, of Saco, a server for the luncheon carries several orders of appetizers out to customers in the dining room.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, January 20, 2010...SMCC culinary arts students prepare a four-course meal that is open to the public, their first real practical experience outside the classroom. SMCC's head of culinary arts, Chef Wil Beriau, visits with diners who participated in the lunch in the school's dining room.

  


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