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Here's the dish

Some Chamberlain students salivate at the chance to sear, slather, saute and flambe, and learn all the less sexy things involved with running a restaurant.

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

NORTH TAMPA -- When Chamberlain High School junior Nathalie Allicock flips on the TV, it's not to watch sitcoms or the latest music videos. Instead, she watches the Food Network and takes notes.

Her favorite show? The Iron Chef. Allicock, 17, so loves to cook that she plans to become a chef and one day teach at the Cordon Bleu in France.

It's a long way from Busch Boulevard to the great kitchens of Europe, but Allicock has taken an important first step. She's learning the basics at a Chamberlain program where class is taught in a kitchen and cafe.

They're not slinging hash here or slapping sandwiches together. The menu at the Green and Gold Cafe includes chicken alfredo and dill-seared salmon salad.

"We do everything from scratch," says instructor Erik Youngs, a professional chef who has been cooking since he was 14.

The cafe trains students to enter the food industry directly or, like Allicock, enroll in Johnson and Wales University in Miami or the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Besides learning to prepare gourmet meals, students get hands-on experience in customer service, food service operations and financial management in the school's recently opened cafe.

Youngs, 32, was a chef at Tampa's Castaways Restaurant before trading the kitchen for the classroom five years ago.

He now practices his craft at Chamberlain's brand-new full-service kitchen and adjacent cafe. The kitchen features a commercial grade double-stack convection oven and a six-burner gas range, allowing for ambitious menus.

The first dish students learned to make was the salmon salad with a mustard vinaigrette dressing. "Our second item was a Southwestern turkey wrap with a black bean and corn salsa, cheese, field greens and cilantro sauce on a chipotle tortilla," Youngs said.

The cafe, which seats 25, will expand to include an outside patio once money can be raised to outfit it.

Currently, students serve two lunch seatings on Thursdays for faculty members and guests, adding to the menu each week.

"Our eventual goal is to offer a full lunch menu every Wednesday and Thursday," Youngs said. "This week we will add a fettucini and a chicken alfredo."

Later, students will learn to prepare sushi, French onion soup, quiches, tableside Caesar salads and flambeed bananas foster.

While gourmet food preparation brings the program attention and clientele, it's only part of what students learn.

Youngs' assistant Angelina Felix, 17, is completing the last part of the program by learning to manage cafe operations, including dietary models and cash control. When the cafe is open, Felix and Youngs lead two teams of students, one responsible for the front room order-taking and service and the other for the kitchen.

Carlos Villanueva, a senior, believes teamwork is the most important lesson he has learned. "Everyone has to be dedicated and do what it takes to run the program," he said.

For Felix, the hard work is beginning to pay off. She plans to use the half-dozen scholarships she has won to attend the Johnson and Wales school next year.

Youngs says cooking competitions each year award students scholarships and cash prizes, such as one for the best gingerbread house. Top academic students with culinary operations training can expect scholarships as well.

Culinary operations remains an elective, outside the state-mandated academic core all students complete to graduate, but the program is growing in popularity in Hillsborough County, where 20 schools now offer the training.

In addition to hands-on experience running the cafe and the chance to compete for awards, students sometimes are matched with restaurants for paid jobs called mentorships. Youngs helped Felix find one such job at a local steakhouse, which will take her from the kitchen to the dining room and business office.

The mentorships and first three levels of the program are provided by Pro Start, a National Restaurant Association initiative to train potential employees.

Youngs said his students will be a work force in demand. "I've seen the studies they've done," Youngs said. "Major labor shortages are coming."

His seniors say they are ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

"After college I plan on running my own full-service restaurant," said Villanueva, whose uncle owns a chain of restaurants in New Jersey.

He has another dream, too. "When I was 5 or 6 years old, my cousin was training to be a chef and brought me into the kitchen," he said. "I've always had the idea to open a culinary school for kids between 10 and 19 years old."

Lunch is served

The Green and Gold Cafe is open to members of the Chamberlain High School community as space allows. For information or reservations, contact Erik Youngs at 758-8829.

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