Young and Hungry
ACC offers students two restaurants' worth of opportunity
For a city of Austin's size, we're blessed with an incredible range of dining options, including world-class fine-dining restaurants that can compete with those of any metropolitan area in the country. We have access to top-quality, prime cooking ingredients, both from local artisanal producers and from elite flagship grocers, such as Central Market and Whole Foods, as well as an amazing range of local ethnic grocers. Recreational cooking classes taught by experts on almost any topic are readily available weekly at very reasonable prices. We also have three local cooking schools training and certifying new chefs and culinarians on a constant basis, as well as culinary programs being taught in the AISD high school system.
Perhaps the least known and most complete of the three local educational culinary programs is taught at Austin Community College's Eastview Campus.
ACC's program is unique. It is the only school in the U.S. that offers associate degrees and certification in the fields of culinary arts, hospitality management, travel & tourism, and meeting & event planning (with a future degree program in beverage management looming on the horizon). ACC offers the only accredited culinary arts program in Texas taught by a public institution, and graduates of either the basic certificate or the associates of applied science degree are eligible to receive the Certified Culinarian certification (the first step in becoming a certified chef). All credit hours in the ACC program transfer to universities offering bachelor's degree programs, whereas the competing programs are proprietary, and their credits might not transfer.
Many of the students in the ACC Hospitality Management School (which includes all four disciplines) are taking classes which concentrate on multiple disciplines; double majors aren't unusual. If one were to manage a hotel or resort, for example, it would be critical to one's success to be able to intelligently supervise the restaurant side of the operation, to know how the kitchen should operate, to be able to critically review their purchasing and costing paperwork. If you are to be a caterer or event planner, quality food production and bid costing to yield a profit is vital to your operation.
The tuition of the two-year associate's degree plan at ACC including books, tools, and uniforms is approximately $6,500. Without a detailed comparison of the curricula of its local competitors, suffice it to say that the ACC program is a downright steal, and like all of the schools, ACC is very active in helping prospective students secure tuition-funding through loans, grants, scholarships, and a deferred billing program.
Classes are set up in blocks, both day and night, so students can work their way through college or take care of their families. Culinary students are encouraged to have jobs within the restaurant industry while they are in school so that they have practical applications for their newly learned skills and can continue independent, on-the-job learning to reinforce their classroom studies. Accommodations are made for the externship portion of the program to allow students to extern at their current jobs, although they are encouraged to extern as far away as possible to expand their world of reference.
"Variety and culinary exploration rounds out the learning process. It promotes vertical movement. If you stay in one place, you get stagnant," says chef instructor Brian McCormick. The program also takes a proactive role in helping graduates with career planning and job placement.
ACC's culinary school has seven faculty members and is currently operating near capacity with about 270 students. Most of the students are in their early 20s, with about half of them having some previous experience with cooking. The food production facilities at Eastview are state-of-the-art, with two large, gleaming stainless steel kitchens that would be the pride of any restaurant in town. It's important for the students to enter the work force knowing how to operate such equipment as large-capacity steam-jacketed soup kettles, tilt braisers, and modern combi ovens items found here but not in many typical smaller restaurant operations. One kitchen is used for hands-on production, while the other is used primarily for baking and butchery labs.
The school prides itself on its meat-cutting and charcuterie classes, taking whole sides of meat and breaking them down into individual cuts, while making their own sausages, bacon, hams, and prosciutto. Says McCormick, "What we are teaching here is a lost art. Most butchers today are really just meat cutters. They receive primal and subprimal cuts and break them down or just order in portioned cuts. Our kids learn how to break down the entire carcass." That same level of detail is evident in all of the classes.
"We teach them how to use the computer, chemistry of food, sanitation and food safety, bookkeeping, taxes, costing and purchasing," McCormick says. "It's no good if they are brilliant, creative chefs but don't understand how to make a profit."
One particular class led us to examine the ACC culinary program. It's the last cooking class the students take in their curriculum, and it produces food for the Thursday-night Bistro 3158 International Foods dining venue on campus, which began in the spring of 2000 and is one of Austin's most unique dining experiences.
"For 11/2 years the students have to follow recipes and produce a dish exactly. With this class they get to go crazy and show their creativity," McCormick says.
The class comprises final-year students in the culinary program. The instructors select a region or topic on which to concentrate the series of dinners for the semester. In four weeks' time, students must research the climatological, geographical, historical, and cultural influences that shaped the ingredients, cooking methods, and flavor profile of the region's cuisine.
It's a true practicum, which draws on all of the accumulated knowledge from the previous classes. The students research recipes and put together a menu, considering many factors: cost and profit margin of the dish, availability of ingredients, practicality, degree of difficulty, and cooking method in terms of kitchen layout. Testing of the dishes is done to make sure that they produce the flavors expected. They also have to submit a cocktail or beverage menu and buffet menu based on the region.
This fall's series is based on countries that are the English colonies of Queen Victoria's reign (Ireland, Gibraltar, Belize, Hong Kong, Malta, Bahamas, New Zealand), culminating in a formal dinner on Dec. 7, which will be based on menus celebrating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. Chef McCormick selects half of the menu, choosing classic international dishes that use some of the more common ingredients. This subtly forces the students to select items that are slightly more difficult to deal with and accommodate from a budgetary point of view; they couldn't choose another chicken or pork dish, for example. The chef in charge must also make intelligent estimates on the number of portions to plan for each dish.
Each student is in charge for one week, composing shopping lists for purchasing, making assignments for each duty station in the kitchen, creating prep lists for the staff, and deciding on plate presentation, etc. The students rotate through the stations so that they are all exposed to each situation. It creates as close to an actual restaurant experience as possible for the students and allows the instructor to evaluate how each student functions as executive chef/manager and how they perform working a station under their peers.
Here's how it works: The room in question is a lecture room with large windows revealing the inner workings of the production kitchen; imagine an open kitchen without the noise. This room magically transforms itself every Thursday night into a fairly elegant dining room. Crisp linens are on every table, with fresh flowers and candles. The waitstaff and floor manager are students from either the culinary program or the hospitality program, who are perfecting the finer points of table service. They are all in matched, crisply starched shirts with ties and dark pants. Music from the chosen region plays in the background; in this case, for Gibraltar, Moroccan and Spanish tunes were playing.
I began my meal with a selection from the instructor's side of the menu, a Singapore pork satay: two skewers of delicious and perfectly cooked pork in a soy-ginger marinade served with a celery salad and peppered tofu. Next I chose from the regional side of the menu: a superb and very authentic chilled Spanish white gazpacho soup, redolent of roasted almond and garlic, thickened with soaked bread, with white grapes and a garnish of a plump, poached shrimp. It was a difficult choice for entrée between the Moroccan lamb steak or the paella. I had been eyeing the paella ingredients back in the kitchen: clams, shrimp, lobster, and house-made sausage, and it was very tempting, but I succumbed to the lamb.
The plate had a large, perfectly grilled medium-rare lamb steak marinated in mint, cumin, garlic, paprika, coriander, and lemon. On the side was a nicely flavored mound of couscous with chunks of almond and a delightful mélange of carrots julienne flavored with garbanzos, zucchini, diced turnip, and raisins. For the salad I chose the instructor's side again: a molded Indonesian brown- and wild-rice salad with yogurt dressing, pecans, cherries, and scallion, topped with an artful display of cucumber and mandarin orange.
Thankfully, when the time came to choose between desserts, I didn't have to make a selection. I was offered the display plate, which contained all four of the desserts for the night, prepared by the pastry class. I tasted all four: a rich lime tart in a perfect thin and flaky crust, a wonderful apricot tart, a sinfully rich chocolate ganache tart, and an excellent mincemeat tart. All were exceptional. Drink choices included tea, coffee, San Pellegrino sodas, and sparkling water. Service was outstanding and very professional.
After dinner is served and the room clears, the class gathers in the dining room to eat leftovers and assess and critique their individual and collective performance, based partly on the comment cards left by the diners and any comments made by diners to the servers. Chef McCormick offers his observations, and the class starts to mentally prepare for the dinner the following week as they clean the kitchen.
Beginning Oct. 12, the same dining room launched a Thursday lunch menu (11:30am-1pm) as Le' Bistrette. Prepared by the American Regional Cuisine class, it includes very reasonably priced salads, sandwiches, burgers, pastas, and a daily pizza. The menu is posted online, and diners can call ahead for takeout orders or choose to dine in the restaurant.
Based on my experiences observing the classes and facilities and interviewing the instructors and students, the culinary arts program at ACC provides an excellent opportunity for Austinites to gain a well-rounded culinary education, at a top-notch facility, for a fair tuition. Diners should definitely take advantage of the superb cuisine and service offered by the series of international diners at Bistro 3158, and based on dinner, my guess is that lunch at Le' Bistrette is of equal quality and value.
On Austin Community College's Eastview Campus (3401 Webberville #3000, www.austincc.edu/hospmgmt), Thursdays see a lecture room transform into a restaurant: Seating for the lunch menu at Le' Bistrette (www.austincc.edu/hospmgmt/bistrettemenu) begins at 11:30am, and the menu ($5-7 options, cash or check only) is served until 1pm. Seating for the five-course dinner ($22.95, cash or check only) at Bistro 3158 (www.austincc.edu/hospmgmt/bistromenu) begins at 6pm and continues through 7:30pm. Alcohol is not allowed on the premises, while donations to a scholarship fund take the place of tips. For more information and to make reservations (which are suggested), call 223-5501.