Making the grade in Ireland

Students learn from hotel chefs

October 06, 2004|By Christianna McCausland | Christianna McCausland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VIRGINIA, Ireland - For most students, heading back to school this year meant new clothes, new notebooks and a familiar ride on the local school bus.

For John Hufnagel, it meant an international flight, a three-hour wait for a taxi and more than an hour's drive into unfamiliar countryside. It was a long way to go to get to Virginia - Virginia in County Cavan, Ireland, that is.

Hufnagel is one of four students studying at the Park Hotel in County Cavan under the auspices of the Baltimore International College's School of Culinary Arts honors program. During the five-week program, students work alongside experienced chefs to hone their skills and gain exposure to the European style of cooking.

"There's a difference between cooking in the States and cooking in Europe," says BIC's director of communications Robin Milligan. "You learn to cook an international cuisine and to deal with an international clientele. This allows them [students] to see what else is available to them, to learn to change their recipes and obtain a more diverse education that helps broaden their resume."

For Hufnagel, the trip to Ireland was the trip of a lifetime and the culmination of an unlikely foray into the culinary world. The flight to Ireland was the first time the 21-year-old Jarrettsville man had traveled on an airplane. And only a few years ago, the closest he was to the culinary arts was making sandwiches in the local High's. Ironically, it was at the convenience store that he first realized his interest in cooking.

"I was the only one who put effort into making the sandwiches," Hufnagel says. "When you're in the kitchen, you have to work hard, and I have a strong work ethic and like to work. I also love the artistic side of it, creating the new dishes."

Hufnagel's first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at age 14. He recalls that it was not a well-run establishment - it later closed - and when he walked out the door, he promised himself he'd never work in a restaurant again. "Now look where I am," he says, gesturing out over the Irish countryside.

The Park Hotel is situated on 100 postcard-perfect acres on the banks of Lough Ramor, a sprawling, navy-blue lake ruffled by cool Irish winds. BIC bought the hotel in 1987.

Only 50 miles from Dublin and close to Ireland's other mushrooming cities, the Park Hotel is a popular destination for weekend country getaways and vacationers exploring Ireland's Midlands.

Hufnagel worked voraciously his first year to get the grades required to go to the Park Hotel, rising at 5 a.m. to be at school by 7 a.m. and working at Henry's Bistro in Jacksonville by night. "I thought this was the chance of a lifetime, to study in a foreign country and learn the European style of cooking," Hufnagel says.

Compared to home, the pace of life is more relaxed in Ireland, but this is no holiday for the BIC students. Hufnagel stays with the other students behind the hotel's historic stables that were converted into private suites. He likes to start his day at 11 a.m. with a walk around the grounds, but by 2 p.m., he is in the kitchen where he will remain until 9 or 10 at night.

The hotel serves traditional Irish fine-dining fare, such as roast monkfish wrapped in smoked bacon in a garlic-thyme cream sauce.

Right now, the hotel is quiet as the peak tourism season passes with the last of the summer roses. However, the hotel remains busy on weekends with weddings and large Sunday lunches. The hotel's general manager, Michael Kelly, says that there are more than 30 weddings a year on the property, and a traditional Irish wedding is a full-day affair with a four- to six-course meal followed by late-night sandwiches and snacks.

Only a few days into the trip, Hufnagel experienced his first Irish wedding with back-to-back events on one weekend.

"Weddings are great because they make you hustle," he says. "We did 130 salads, poured 130 soups and by then we had to start plating 130 entrees, which was stuffed lamb," he says.

The kitchen's core staff, experienced chefs with long-standing careers in three- and four-star properties, closely monitor the students' strengths and weaknesses.

"At the end of the day, we have to blend them [the students] into what we do on a daily basis," says head chef David Gadd. Gadd has more than 20 years' cooking experience in England and on cruise ships and came to Ireland four years ago. "They are very young and on a learning curve, but the best way to learn is by doing it. You can't teach someone knife skills by telling them."

In addition to learning different styles of cooking, the students get a peek into the workings of a real kitchen. "You have to learn to adapt to a kitchen where everything isn't brand-new and works perfectly [like at school]," says Gadd. "We have burners here you have to hit with a pan to get them to light, but that's part of the learning experience."

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