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Leadership Learning via Student Lunch Labs

Blog # 3 by Stratford Chefs School’s 2014-15 student blogger Eli Silverthorne

“YES CHEF!” As culinary students, we say this a lot, as a way to express to our chef instructors that we have understood what has been stated, and will proceed in executing whatever they have asked. The term is especially applicable during service, when different stations have to synchronize efforts in assembling constituent elements, which comprise a single plate, several of which are served to a table at a time. In this symphony of activity “the chef” clearly stands out as conductor.

Often, one only has the opportunity to act as a chef after years of tenured experience, a title more bestowed than achieved. In chefs school however, things move at a faster pace. As we serve the public 5 nights and 2 days per week, there is invariably a “student chef” at the helm, who is responsible to plan pre-prep, organize staff and direct action while executing the given menu of the day.

The benchmark of acceptability is set exceptionally high by the Stratford Chefs School dinner series, which has students create menus as designed by the world’s leading and trending chefs, such as: Rene Redzepi, Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, etc. In doing so, students fully grasp that when designing/creating/plating food the great chefs transfer more than mere food to a plate; they deliver a bit of themselves to each and every guest in their dining room.

Chefs School Lunch Labs are similar, but a bit different. Taking that same ethos in mind, students are no longer mere interpreters of established recipes, but instead are given the full-fledged title of “chef”; making them in charge of conceptualizing, designing, organizing, and executing all aspects of food and service (front and back of house). It is an opportunity for students to bridge and showcase both where they are from and what they have learned, while at the same time pushing boundaries and seeing just how far they can go, designing a full menu, with a kitchen and staff of “their own”.

From the student chef perspective, my Halloween lunch lab was a great success. I went against my better judgment and presented food which was a bit heavier in substance and larger in portion than is generally the case with “fine dining” establishments; part of my personal ethos that diners should never leave my restaurant hungry.

As student chef, my first task was to assess all of my strengths and weaknesses. On the negative side of things, I had a very limited budget of $12.50 per person available to present 5 course offerings. On the positive side of things, cost was my only serious limitation, as I had all kinds of cheap, indeed free, labour, great sourcing options, and a plethora of cutting edge culinary equipment at my disposal. As such I instinctually zoned in on a slow-cooking-method comfort food theme, with a seasonal fall focus.

The inspiration for my appetizers was both personal and professional. The eastern European dish of borscht and peirogies was catalyzed from personal travels to Moscow, while the risotto dish was influenced by my most recent summer internship / employment at The (old) Prune, here in Stratford Ontario. The protein selections for my mains, as well as the dessert, were greatly influenced by my recent stagiere experience with James Walt at Araxi in Whistler, British Columbia: a chef whose food philosophy and professionalism I greatly respect and admire.

There were a couple requirements that I personally was looking to fulfill in my menu: a soup, a pasta alternative, a potato pave, a game component, a fish component, and a tart dessert, etc. By mixing and matching this and that protein, and keeping what was in essence a heavy and starch-filled menu, I was able to accomplish all I was after. Pleased with how things ran leading up to and during service I went out into the boisterous dining room to interact and gauge feedback from the guests.

Most everyone was appreciative of my decision to skip the ‘obligatory’ salad, and offer TWO warm and hearty appetizers to contrast the cold and wet day outside. There was nothing but praise regarding the texture and flavour of both the pork cheeks and gnocchi; which was encouraging considering I was attempting both of these recipes more by estimation than experience.

Choice of appetizers:

 

Choice of Entrees:

 

Dessert (set):

My role as “student chef” was very educational and encouraging. It forced me out of my comfort zone, and into a position where calculated risks and reshuffled priorities are the name of the game. With the real pressures of serving the public, within the safe confines of an educational setting, the exercise of student chef allows one to experience the process of menu development from insight to fruition, while grasping all the highs and lows developed on that journey from chefs mind to guest palate.

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