AACC students run makeshift restaurants

Anne Arundel Community College culinary arts student Lynn Brown said that while growing up in Washington, he would watch his mother prepare dishes that she ultimately taught him to cook.

Then one day, he said, his mother virtually stopped cooking, all but turning the job over to him.

"I was cooking pot roasts in the third grade," said Brown. He took his passion for cuisine to the community college with hopes of becoming a professional chef and discovered a school whose culinary arts institute has generated national attention, in part because of its hands-on approaches to preparing students.

Brown and other students are taking part in two AACC initiatives that offer a firsthand look at the restaurant business. The first is Cole's Bistro, a makeshift restaurant that is a partnership between AACC and the Laurel-based Woodland Job Corps Career Development Center.

Housed in a dining area of the Woodland center, the restaurant is run entirely by the AACC advanced culinary arts class.

Monique Williams, AACC culinary arts instructor, said that the college launched Cole's Bistro to ensure that its culinary arts program remains competitive. She said the restaurant is named for Francis Cole, a regional director of the U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps, a training program that helps young people choose a career. Cole's Bistro serves three-course dinners twice a month; online reservations are required.

"Some of our students have never been away from home or have never been to a really nice restaurant," Williams said. "As close as they get is our bistro."

Students staged a soft opening this month with a menu that included a crab appetizer, French onion soup and braised veal shanks with brown sauce, risotto and vegetable.

Also, culinary arts students stage on-campus luncheons that involve selecting a renowned chef as inspiration for planning, preparing and serving lunch for guests. Williams said the luncheons, which take about a month to prepare, are a graduation requirement that counts toward 40 percent of students' grades.

The luncheons are served at a venue in the humanities building on AACC's campus that, like Cole's Bistro, is run like a restaurant.

"They have to do an essay on whoever the chef is, and let us know the background and history of the chef and how the chef started out in the industry," Williams said. "They must do a four-course menu and a full-recipe packet, a detailed list of who does what in the kitchen and prep work on plate presentation."

This semester, the students selected participants in the "Iron Chef" TV programs as inspirations. Most recently, they prepared a meal based on the works of Cat Cora, a chef featured on Food Network's "Iron Chef America." Before that, they prepared meals inspired by chefs Bobby Flay, Marc Forgione and Mario Batali.

Brown, who says that he watches food shows "more than [ESPN's] SportsCenter," takes cues from chefs like Cora that he uses in his approach to cooking.

"Every time I watch Cat Cora, she has this look about her, like you don't want to step in her way," said Brown. "She always looks focused. I want to develop that."

He added that working at Cole's Bistro and the luncheon has helped him use different spices and seasonings, particularly lemon juice.

"Once you've added acid, salt and pepper, you don't really need to add anything else," he said. "But your dish is what you make it."

The on-campus and off-campus approaches to learning about the food industry are helping the school draw students from as far away as Puerto Rico and California, said Williams. Some students from other regions of the country say that they heard about AACC's culinary arts institute while working in the Job Corps programs.

Among them is AACC student Brittney Tompkins of Norwich, Conn., who said that after working in the Job Corps in her home state, she came to the school to learn under Williams.

"I thought it would be awesome working under a female chef," she said.

Brown said that learning from his mother gave him knowledge of Southern cuisine. He added that the courses have introduced him to other cuisines while helping him to fine-tune his approaches to preparing meals that he's served for years. He also has learned to manage time in the kitchen better.

Iesha Wright, from Rock Hill, S.C., said that she heard about the AACC program while at a Job Corps program in that state, but her knowledge of restaurants was limited to working in fast-food venues.

"I had never tried Italian or French, because down South, about all they have is soul food," she said. "Here, I've tried escargot and alligator. It's a new experience for me."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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