ROCKLAND— It’s one of the Midcoast’s best kept secrets: The food at Mid-Coast School of Technology is delicious. And you can’t beat a $5 lunch.
On Feb. 23, the school’s hospitality program kicked off its annual World Café, where for the next eight weeks, nearly 50 students will perfect and execute a themed menu for the public at the school, 1 South Main Street. Each weekly menu offers full breakfasts and lunches for an average of $5, Tuesday through Friday.
“We usually offer two appetizers, a soup and salad, and three to four entrees,” said chef Joshua Gamage, the school’s culinary arts instructor.
On opening day, the humble restaurant (which is actually a classroom) was packed with regulars who know to go in via the side door (not through the school’s main doors.) Each table in the dining area has a modest paper table setting with a vase of fresh flowers and a comment card. The starting week is always U.S.A. themed and for lunch, the fried cheeseburger balls topped with pickles ($3) and the cowboy burger with homemade barbecue sauce and crispy haystack onions ($5) were the biggest hit.
Cristen Rasmussen, 17, was the student chef behind the most popular items ordered. “I was just thinking about doing a fun little cheeseburger slider for an appetizer and it popped into my head,” she said. “It feels really good that people are ordering my food.”
Her mother, who was a World Café regular, got Rasmussen interested in the hospitality program and this is her first year.
“I think I want to work as a chef when I get out of this program,” she said.
Classes are split up into morning and afternoon shifts. Gamage teaches culinary arts while his co-instructor, chef Carol Pelletier, teaches front of the house skills, as well as baking/pastry and nutrition. Each student gets to work every facet of the restaurant business, from the preparation to serving etiquette.
My server was 18-year-old Liz Freyer, who had never taken orders before. As this was her first year in the program, she asked me hesitantly several times to confirm the order. She said she’s more comfortable in the kitchen.
“Next week for Mexican Week, I get to make a dessert of churros,” she said. “It’s fried dough with cinnamon and brown sugar. I’ll also make sopapilla, which are also deep fried triangles. When you take a bite, it tastes just like fried dough at the fair. We’ll serve that with cinnamon ice cream.”
For next week’s Mexican menu, Gamage and the students reviewed all of the Mexican restaurant offerings in the area.
“We look at menus from the chain restaurant all the way to a local restaurant and we might see 10 different ideas and how to put them all together,” he said. “Leading up to World Café week, we do a lot of experimentation and if it’s good enough, it will go on the menu.”
Just like an executive chef or expediter in a restaurant, Gamage makes sure that every dish that goes out is up to the program’s highest standards. It’s called “Working the pass.” He said when it’s showtime, he is behind the line helping the student chefs prioritize the tickets.
“When the orders started coming, it can get very scary for them, really quickly. I’m there to basically show them how to time everything out. Sometimes, it’s like a little deer in the headlights and they’re wondering is this going to be OK. But, we design a very simple menu so the kids don’t get too overwhelmed.”
The skills training they are getting is invaluable.
“When kids have the experience of live cooking for customers, they are getting almost a college level of instruction, because there’s just no way any simulation could teach you the mental aerobics of timing out tickets or interacting as servers,” he said. “It’s a nice, safe way to learn these skills.”
Every year Gamage has successfully placed almost every one of his students as staff with local restaurants. “I have relationships with most of the restaurants,” he said. “I usually just determine where the student lives and if he or she has transportation, then match the student personality wise and skill wise with restaurants that would be the best fit.”
By 1 p.m. the Cafe promptly shut down as the students needed to tally the receipts, clean up the kitchen, reset the dining areas and catch the bus back to their other schools or back home.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org