Culinary Institute students ready for prime time service

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Chef Instructor Andrea Glick (left) talks to students James Roberts, Corey Woodley and Frank Greenwood as they make wild rice Tuesday morning.

There was no one reminiscent of TV chef Gordon Ramsay screaming obscenities and tossing would-be chefs from the kitchen at Suffolk County Community College’s Culinary Institute Tuesday, as students offered a gourmet luncheon to about 35 guests in Riverhead.

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Indeed, the atmosphere was filled with enthusiasm from students, instructors and guests who were delighted with the food and service. This was the second successive year that culinary students got out of the classroom to prepare and serve a full upscale meal for community members.

“They have to get real-life experience that this provides,” said David Bergen, associate dean at the college.

The culinary institute operates a regular luncheon program serving sandwiches, soups and pastries on Riverhead’s East Main Street, but the upscale service the students are being trained to perform doesn’t come into play on a daily basis, Mr. Bergen said.
And though many of the events at the school are geared at drawing more foot traffic into the eatery, Mr. Bergen noted the entire operation is nonprofit, with prices geared toward breaking even. And if there is occasional profit from the lunch operation, the money goes back into the culinary program, which has been based in Riverhead for three years.

And the program seems to be operating smoothly. The students preparing and plating meals in the kitchen and bringing them gracefully to the tables Tuesday was truly balletic, more reminiscent of a well-run restaurant than a restaurant college.

For $15, diners enjoyed a three-course meal, including warm baked goat cheese with baby greens and a sherry vinaigrette dressing; seared duck breast with port wine cherry sauce, served with wild rice and haricots verts; and strawberry shortcake.

“The duck is done right,” said Jim Short of Mastic Beach as he devoured his lunch. He noted it’s not an easy dish to prepare.

“It’s just great that they have something like this,” said former Mattituck educator Brigitte Gibbons, who serves on the New Suffolk Board of Education. She had come to the luncheon with her family after seeing an ad for it. Her son Marc pronounced the food as good as his mom’s, then, caught in that impossible conundrum, stressed that Ms. Gibbons is a fine cook in her own right.

Special guest Karen Lapidez, a culinary institute student who retired from the Marine Corps as a staff sergeant and formed the Suffolk County Community College’s Veterans Association, had nothing but praise for the food and service. She said she’d been invited to the luncheon, but not told she was to be a special guest.

While instructors were on hand to answer questions for their fresh-faced restaurant workers, they left the direction of operations to the students, with Kassie Watson of Shirley directing the kitchen operation and Amanda Barbella of Port Jefferson Station overseeing the waitstaff in the dining room.

The students had a run-through without the customers, Ms. Watson revealed. That left her feeling optimistic that Tuesday’s service would go smoothly, she said.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Ms. Barbella said of the preparation for the service.

“It’s all about preciseness, timing and teamwork,” said Jim Fogarty, the culinary institute’s community liaison.

“Presentation is almost as important as taste,” said Mr. Bergen. That was attested to when one plate was rejected before it left the kitchen simply because the wild rice wasn’t in the perfect circle the students intended.

The two most important lessons the students are taught were summed up by instructor Nancy Morro: The customer is always right and the customer is always right.

Students give high marks to the instructors from whom they are learning their craft and the program they believe is preparing them well for their future jobs.

“I love it; I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” said Corey Woodley of Riverhead. His job Tuesday was to prepare the port wine cherry sauce.

“It’s not hard; it’s all about technique,” he said.

Greenporter Tania Maria Garcia pronounced the program “really good” as instructor Andrea Glick praised her as “one of the best” with her kitchen knife skills.

“The teachers here are phenomenal,” said Michael Greene of Mastic. “I’m honored to be here.”

A second luncheon service is planned for Thursday and a dinner service for Friday night.

“Book early; the seats go fast,” advised luncheon guest Janet Walsh.

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