Dining In at School

The busboy: “I can feel it in my back.”

The plater: “My feet hurt! Our teacher told us to wear comfortable shoes.”

The restaurant manager: “I’ve been under high stress all day…”

On-the-scene remarks from students in Mrs. Laura Cole’s Advanced Nutrition and Wellness class, spoken by students who had just finished serving full course meals to 70 people in the space of two hours in a restaurant they’d created from scratch. Another class would repeat the experience two days later—this group preparing meals for 65. Teachers, secretaries, principals, aides–all building staff and even district office personnel receive the menus in advance, make reservations, and on the days of the restaurant, enjoy a thirty-minute lunch period in a setting very different from the usual brown bag, microwave, and cafeteria tray ambience.

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McCutcheon teachers enjoy lunch prepared and served by students.

These student-operated restaurant days have been a tradition at McCutcheon High School for at least thirty years. The program has spread to Harrison High School, too, and the staff  at both high schools have the chance each semester to enjoy a relaxing lunch with colleagues and observe proud, though nervous, students in a completely different setting. For the students, it’s an opportunity to discover the many challenging aspects of operating a restaurant and to apply the culinary skills they’ve learned in class.

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Mrs. Jami Mosley and teachers at Harrison High School enjoy lunch served by students.

I’ve enjoyed these lunches for years and I’ve often wondered how my colleagues, Mrs. Laura Cole at McCutcheon and Mrs. Jami Mosley at Harrison High School, do it. How do they take students from objectives projected on the whiteboard to a full service restaurant?

To find out, I asked to be a fly on the wall during the instructional phase of Mrs. Cole’s class and then take pictures in the kitchen on the days the restaurant was in operation.

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Students folded construction paper to make these floral centerpieces.

When Mrs. Cole introduced the project,  I learned along with the students that they would find recipes online, propose a menu, cost out the meals, and then make final choices based on selections that could be prepared economically and in volume in a short amount of time, meals whose artful arrangement on the plate and utter deliciousness would be irresistible. Mrs. Cole explained that the students would select a theme for the restaurant and transform a classroom area in the FACS department into a welcoming space with soft lighting and themed wall and table decorations. They’d learn to work as a team and see the absolute necessity for each person to responsibly carry out his or her role: managers, servers, expediters, platers, bussers, and dishwashers.

My colleague showed the students sample menus that went back thirty years—I remembered some of those earlier lunches—and opened her closets to reveal centerpieces, vases, and decorative objects that could be used again if students were interested.  She talked about some of the problems and successes of the past, warning students of the necessity to plan ahead and think large-scale–larger than they’re used to anyway.

On the day of the restaurant, she continued, everyone would be involved in food preparation from 7:30 until 10:30. Then they’d diversify, each student carrying out the responsibilities of the role to which they’d been assigned. The students told me, when I interviewed them on the day the restaurant was open, that they had had some choice in this: They indicated their top three preferences and then Mrs. Cole took it from there. One of the students, the busboy, confided, “I’m the only one who wanted to do this job, so I got it.”

In the meantime, they watched an episode of Top Chef, viewed a video called Restaurant Nightmares, looked up restaurants online to get ideas, and did the math for a number of different menus.

I was there the day of the Great Dessert Cook-off.  Working in teams, the students chose a dessert, prepared it, plated a sample, and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Afterwards, students evaluated the desserts on cost, appearance on the plate, taste, and ease of preparation in high volume  in a small amount of time. One of the best desserts, Crème Brulee, didn’t make the cut—not a practical offering on a large-scale basis. In the end, two of the many chocolate desserts won out: Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle and Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball with Graham Crackers.

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I was struck, on the day of the restaurant, by the efficiency and calm in the kitchen. The atmosphere was harmonious and focused. No hanging out, no hanging back, and certainly not any hanging on. Everyone was concentrated on making the teachers’ dining experience perfect in every way, but no one seemed frantic, even the manager, who did confess to being stressed. He told me that he has a job in a carry-out pizza establishment. “They don’t have a dining room,” he explained. “I’m used to the back-of-the-house, but this front-of-the-house part is stressful!”

The entrée was chicken quesadillas. At one station, a team of cooks prepared them on anIMG_7372 array of electric griddles. The cooks even asked to try an innovation they’d seen in a cooking show: melting cheese on the griddle so it formed a tasty crust on the outside of the tortilla. Delicious!

IMG_7385Another girl— a tiny girl who wants to be a professional chef, the one whose feet hurt—wielded the chef’s knife, cutting each quesadilla into perfect triangles.

The others at her station added Spanish rice and chips and salsa to the plate, and then the expediter delivered the plates to a side table where the servers picked them up. The manager hovered over them all, taking his job very seriously:

“A little more lettuce there!”

“Don’t forget the chips on that plate!”

“Watch the sour cream!”  Someone appeared with a wet paper towel to wipe a smear on the side of a plate.IMG_7370

Servers rushed into the kitchen: “We need five more desserts!” Instantly, the platers went to work, the expediter picked up the desserts and passed them to the servers, and the waitresses were out the door.

The second day—with her second section of Advanced Nutrition and Wellness—Mrs. Cole repeated the process. This time the menu was loaded potato soup, garden salad, a cheddar bay biscuit, and for dessert, that Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle.

For teachers, restaurant day has always been an event to look forward to, especially during the gloomy days of winter. It’s a chance to see the students shine and a chance for them to impress us. But there’s always a cost: The food is  so delicious we leave nothing on the plate…and that means extra walks in the days ahead to burn the calories away. That’s okay. These lunches are worth every bite.

At the end of her meal, one of the teachers asked her waitress: “Is the manager coming out?”  In the “back of the house,” I witnessed just a moment of panic when the message was relayed. The manager stepped into the dining room to discover not a disgruntled customer, but one who wanted, of course, to compliment the chefs and all the other restaurant workers, too.

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Mrs. Cole directs the student restaurant project at McCutcheon.

Mrs. Cole has been orchestrating this project-based learning experience for several years. The restaurant project means hours of grocery shopping for her and a great deal of planning, but it’s worth the extra time, she says. “While the restaurant project can be stressful, it is very rewarding.  Students work hard to plan their restaurant and menus.  Since students have so much freedom of creativity, they really take ownership of this project.  It is amazing how well they come together to be an effective team to carry out their vision.  While most are exhausted by the end of the day, they are also very proud.”

Indeed, the whole production is a recipe for success for her students: an impressive blend of content knowledge and culinary skill mixed together with math, literacy and problem-solving, flavored with creativity, and topped off with teamwork. Five stars!

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