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A Unique Dining Experience

Restaurants step up to provide students hands-on learning experience

By Karen Christopfel · May 18th, 2011 · Diner

Those of us who have worked in restaurants know it’s a love/hate relationship. Restaurant jobs are demanding and draining, both mentally and physically, but we put on a smile for every table and laugh each time someone says, “I’ll have one of everything” or “How much boloney is in the Bolognese?”

In spite of the stress and mild irritations, those times have produced some of my best memories. Restaurant people are good people. Restaurant people know the importance of community.

That’s why it came as no surprise when Benihana Japanese Steakhouse, Palomino and Lavomatic, three busy downtown restaurants, hosted 10 Hughes STEM High School students for an unforgettable learning experience.

Hughes STEM High School in Clifton, with its focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), ups the educational ante by incorporating a one-week intersession course twice a year to provide students with “outside of the box” educational experiences.

I am fortunate to make a living doing two things I love — eating and teaching. Evenings, I can be found dining around the city and writing reviews, but during the day I am a teacher at Hughes STEM High School. Worlds collided one week in April when I was able to do both simultaneously.

With the popularity of food TV shows, students are showing more interest in cooking these days. Capitalizing on that, I combined a job shadowing experience with cooking in the Spring Intersession I developed. The Cooking and Restaurant Ownership course was designed to provide students with a wide-range of restaurant experiences — including prepping, cooking, serving, hostessing and managing — as well as an introduction to the financial savvy necessary to run a successful restaurant.

The intersession illustrated that math and science are not just courses in school.

And that raw fish is delicious.

For these 10 students, the hands-on experience was a baptism by fire. Almost immediately, students were out of their element, immersed in activities and terminology completely new to them. They learned kitchen lingo and organizational skills, got a crash course in how to work in cramped quarters and quickly picked up on the importance of clear communication. They sliced, diced and julienned their hearts out.

Watch the students at work at Lavomatic

The downtown culinary tour began at Benihana on Sixth Street. Students were very excited to work and, as their shift wore on, were looking forward to eating lunch.

Matt Stewart, Benihana’s General Manager, had students setting up tables, placing chopsticks just so and polishing bowls for the lunch rush. The shift turned unexpectedly busy and students were put to work prepping vegetables in the back kitchen, hostessing, serving drinks, taking orders and shadowing the Hibachi and sushi chef. One of the highlights of the day for students was using chopsticks and trying various sushi rolls. They all agreed with classmate Del’Shawn, who earnestly stated, “These aren’t gross at all!”

Day 2 was spent at Palomino, overlooking Fountain Square. Expectations of the “maybe kids can fold napkins and observe” variety quickly evolved into students prepping oven-roasted tomatoes and meatballs, making salads, working the sauté station, hostessing and shadowing Chef Kevin Worthington. Students Devona and Alexus happily prepared salads and proudly showed off the Tiramisu they plated (devoured by 10 hungry teens one second later).

Amad was beaming behind the line, sampling sauces and putting the finishing touches on his waffle fries with gorgonzola sauce. Adrienne was such a natural at hostessing that, if she were of working age, she would have been offered a job on the spot.

Jamal followed Chef Worthington with a video camera, watching as he explained quality control and expedited orders. He got a one-on-one lesson on restaurant finance and learned about the importance of food appearance, taste and texture. Chef even sat down for an exclusive interview that went into students’ iMovie about the weeklong session.

Day 3 was at Lavomatic on Vine Street. Manager Brian Firth spent a lot of time with the students and gave them a crash course in cutting herbs and cleaning chicken breasts. Unbeknownst to them, students were prepping their own lunch.

After the chicken was cleaned, it was time to grill. Students packed the Lavomatic kitchen and learned the skills of seasoning and grill marks and the chef pulled out the butane to show them how to melt cheese in a flash. Students took turns taking lunch orders and entering them into the computer, bussing, setting tables and serving customers. They all sat down family-style to eat the chicken pasta they prepared and were treated to some new tastes, like lobster mac and cheese and hummus.

Education must be relevant to be meaningful. These students, and the students in all of the Hughes intersessions, learned math and science principles, organizational skills and the importance of teamwork in a way that brought learning to life.

As they compiled photographs and video for their iMovie, they recounted stories from the week, the good and the bad, just like every restaurant person around America does after each shift. Welcome to the business, kids!



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