I'll never forget the dread of marching from kitchen to dining room towards the table I was serving with a bottle of French wine in hand. It was at the Culinary Institute of America's fine French restaurant -- the first time I had ever waited on a table, and the second time I was taking this particular walk; the initial table visit had me nervously standing alongside the diners while twisting the cork screw to their rather expensive bottle of Bordeaux.
"Excuse me, I'll be right back," I told them after flubbing the process and shredding cork crumbs into the wine.
The chef-instructor was not cheered by the sight of my return to the kitchen with bottle in hand. He ordered another student to pour the wine through a fine sieve into a decanter.
"This is for us after service," he said, then handed me another bottle and told me that I'd better not screw up again. I didn't -- not then, and, quite frankly, very few times since.
The diners were certainly not upset by the episode; like all of the restaurant's clientele, they paid a heavily discounted price for their meal with the understanding that a student-run food and service operation would likely be imperfect. They got a great meal at a great price, and, most importantly, students learned how to operate a fine-dining restaurant. That was the idea behind us paying tuition at a culinary school.
But at the Miami Culinary Institute, students are not to be involved in the school's upcoming high-end Tuyo restaurant. Instead, as director John Richards explained to Short Order yesterday, they will be limited to the student cafe and food truck.
Here's a hint to prospective MCI students: You really don't need an Associate in Science culinary degree to get a job cooking in a cafe or food truck.
"This is professional, we are in competition with the best restaurants in Florida," Richards replied when asked why students were being shut out. "This is destination dining, not a culinary school student-run restaurant."
But why is this so? Richards makes it seem as though they are "in competition" out of necessity, but it's MCI's choice (or that of its host, Miami Dade College). Never mind that we don't need another high-end restaurant -- Miami's got plenty of overpriced dining options. It's not about us.
It's about the students.
It isn't just students at the CIA who participate in their school's high-end restaurant, but this is a practice followed at every culinary school that I know of.
For the past twenty years, FIU's Biscayne Bay campus in North Miami has been offering a cut-rate three-course lunch with beverage and espresso. The meal went for $15 when I last dined there in 2007 -- tax included, no tipping allowed. Wine is one of the beverage options, and at this price most folks wouldn't care if the student/waiter popped the cork with his teeth.
Having students work the restaurant is not the same as having inmates run the asylum: Chef Michael Moran oversees the FIU kitchen production, and a professional orchestrates the dining room as well. Lunch for clients is, for the students, a course in advanced food production management.
When I dined there, at meal's end the class/crew came into the dining room two at a time and introduced themselves and said where they were from (which turned out to be China, Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and the USA). One thing each had in common: They were visibly proud of being able to march into a lovely dining room, wearing their professional uniform, in order to take shared credit for an excellent meal (plus, of course, they inevitably learned more than a thing or two that day in the process). I can't imagine students feeling the same pride as they trudge down the front steps of a truck.
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According to MCI's website, "Total cost for Associate in Science Degree: $24,640.60." Plus "additional fees are inclusive of books, uniform and supplies." As a pastry chef might say, that's a lot of dough.
It is shameful -- and that's putting it nicely -- that the decision-makers at Miami Culinary Institute are more interested in using their campus restaurant to turn profits than to train students. And make no mistake -- this is precisely the sort of training that graduates will need in order to be able to function in the real restaurant world once they leave school. Not only do they need this sort of experience, but with tuition topping 25 grand they surely deserve it.