Three-course meal truly a class act

March 04, 2009|By ROB KASPER

Late in the afternoon, a time of day when many teenagers were chilling, those in Wendy Parker Robinson's class were still in school, still sweating. Clad in chef's whites, they were chopping squash, searing chicken breasts, forming balls of goat cheese and beautifying butter.

They were getting ready to feed 200 people dinner at the National Academy Foundation High School, housed on the Digital Harbor campus in Federal Hill. It was the school's first Restaurant Night, when students in its hospitality and tourism classes would serve a three-course meal to anyone quick enough to book a reservation.

Demand for the $15 tickets was strong. "Initially, we expected to serve about 150; we ended up with reservations for 208," said director Ada Brown. For the event, the cafeteria's laminated tables were pushed aside, replaced by stylish circular ones draped with tablecloths, decked with flowers and set with china and flatware borrowed from a local caterer.

In the kitchen, chef Jerry Pellegrino, proprietor of Corks Restaurant, presided. He cajoled the students - "Clean off these tables; I want to see nothing but stainless steel" - and occasionally offered praise. "These kids have no idea how much work it is to put on a restaurant meal like this, but they are learning," said Pellegrino, who volunteered to oversee the students.

One thing the students learned was that chopping squash is drudgery. Andre Davis, 16, was not sure he ever wanted to see another squash again. The junior and his classmates diced a seemingly endless supply of the vegetable, one of the ingredients in the evening's first course. "It is not fun," Davis said of his labors, "but somebody has got to do it."

April Garrison, 17, a senior, mastered the art of piping decorative swirls of softened butter on serving plates. By the end of the evening, Pellegrino was referring to Garrison as "my princess of butter."

Juniors LaVar Brown, 16, and LaMar Luckey, 16, seared chicken breasts, and then made gravy with the chicken drippings, a roux and some truffles tossed in by Pellegrino. It took a village to make the gravy as a string of students, including Tiffani Cooper, 16, and Marlon Copeland, 16, came by to taste and offer opinions.

Making the salad dressing was also a group effort. Whisks in hand, a cadre of students, including juniors Terrence Ervin,17, and Kaitlyn Smith,16, took turns furiously working a giant bowl of vinegar and oil into an emulsion. Ervin teased his male classmates, saying that Smith, a slight girl with strong wrists, was doing a better job "manning up" for the task than they were.

As the teenagers worked for hours in the hot kitchen, their focus fluctuated between casual conversation and daunting duties. Luckey, the fry cook, danced in between tasks. Pausing before they "plated up" 200-plus salads, the teenagers sang.

At supper time they were all business, dividing into three teams that first delivered plates of winter salad, then plates of pan-roasted chicken with carrots and mashed potatoes, and finally servings of apple cobbler. Crews of bow-tied servers who were also students at the academy whisked the dishes to the tables.

Out in the dining room one of the parents, Vonda Holmes, admired the winter salad placed before her. She said she was proud of her son, Brandon Caldwell, one of the student cooks. Brandon's 9-year-old brother, Antonio, also offered a compliment. He was not afraid, he said, to eat anything his big brother cooked.

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