BELFAST— The kitchen at Waldo County Technical Center is fired up with activity on Friday mornings as Chef Matt Maniscalco works with high school students on preparing a simple menu. On October 26, it was potato and corn chowder, spaghetti with a homemade meat sauce, and an apple crisp with strawberry puree.
By 8 a.m., Maniscalco and his students were busy prepping the pre-fixe menu, setting up demos of how each dish is prepared, in anticipation of the lunch crowd.
“We’ve only been open since October 19, so right now, as the students are learning, we’re starting off simply,” said Maniscalco.
The public café originated nearly 20 years ago when the center’s previous chef worked with the students to create a hands-on restaurant experience replicating real world skills.
“When I started this position two years ago, people kept asking when we’d bring the café back,” said Maniscalco. “With 32 students in our Culinary Arts Program, we now have the numbers to pull this off. And it’s a great way to connect with community, especially the grandparents and parents for the students, who, not only get a great meal for a low price, but also get to see their kids learning in action.”
The dining room, which can seat 30 people is far from fancy, but it’s light and airy with simple pine furniture. In some ways, it almost feels like a stage set.
In the age of cooking shows, culinary travel shows and celebrity chefs, the WCTC café is a refreshing experience because it is not quite real. Yes, one pays for the meal and the students are serving as both sous chefs, and front of the house servers, but no one is going to be held to a standard one expects from a real restaurant. There’s no need for tips, or a Yelp review. In fact, mistakes will be made, because that’s how the students will learn.
Hannah Paige, 17, performs as the café’s general manager, seating each person coming in and instructing her “staff” to make sure diners have enough water, coffee, and napkins.
“You should have seen her the first day,” said Maniscalco. “She was very nervous, but now she is a pro. Waiting tables with the public is very daunting for some of these students. Some kids have expressed to me their anxiety of interacting with the public and I just let them do whatever feels comfortable.”
Maniscalco, who has worked both as a chef and server in Manhattan, Mississippi and Hollywood for 14 years, keeps an eye on his students throughout the entire service.
“I can just take a peek out the door and know what needs to be adjusted,” he said. “And then when the public is gone, we go over everything that can be improved.” Yet, he is no taskmaster. His students trust him and know that if they don’t get everything right the first time, it’s going to be okay. “Often, my kids will go home on the weekend and prepare something from scratch they learned to make in the kitchen that week and surprise their family with a dish, then come back in on Monday and tell me all about it,” he said.
Most of the food is donated from the local food pantry and farms. Maniscalco also sources ingredients from certain purveyors and often will pop into Hannaford the day before the cafe to pick up last minute items.
“We try to use the best ingredients possible,” he said.
While the Culinary Program is still in its infancy, the pre-fixe menu each week will be simple constructions of classic comfort foods. But, as the students build on their skills, Maniscalco will continue to offer more sophisticated flavors, tastes and menus. “We’re not going to garnish plates with foams or sauces or anything that fancy, but we will explore more food within certain geographic areas, such as homemade pastas that you’d make from Italy, or Lo Mein, that you’d make in China,” he said. “We’ll embrace those flavors and begin working with them. I eventually want to step back and oversee them take over.”
Many of WCTC’s students, once they’ve graduated from the Culinary Program, have gone on to get cooking and serving jobs in the Maine restaurant industry. “They’ve had two years of real life experience our program, and they know what they’re doing,” he said. With a very real shortage of experienced staff in the Midcoast’s restaurant industry, this program is a guaranteed pipeline for experienced workers.
The café will run every Friday from noon to 1 p.m. until June, barring any school functions. Each week the Center will offer a pre-fixe menu, which can be found on their Facebook Page. The public may come to the Center, pay $9.00 for the meal at the door with cash or a check only. Call or email the Culinary program to make a reservation 342-5231 ext#122 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com