I get the dry heaves when a skilled dentist approaches me with dental floss, let alone a whirring drill. I know major airline pilots are highly experienced and reassuringly unperturbable. Still, I practically have to be sedated every time I fly. And seeing scissors headed toward my follicly challenged scalp always brings on a panic attack, even when the instrument is wielded by a stylist licensed by the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.
So you can imagine my anxiety level after I somehow talked myself into facing a battery of meals prepared by teenage and postadolescent student cooks. After all, eating is my life. Remember the adage, "Youth is wasted on the young"? I sure didn't look forward to getting gastronomically wasted by youthful beginners at two Valley culinary schools. Trainees in the kitchen--can you imagine a scarier prospect? What would these chef-wanna-bes be working on? I pictured them, huddled around an instructor, trying to unlock the mysteries of the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices. Or maybe they'd be learning the right way to angle a slice of processed cheese on a burger.
As it turned out, my fears were groundless. To my great relief, I found that, with proper tutelage, youth isn't always wasted on the young.
The Gallery Cafe is the dining laboratory for the School of Culinary Arts, part of the Art Institute of Phoenix. Its 18-month program aims to give novices a well-rounded culinary education. At the end of the term, prospective graduates face what they say is the most daunting part of the curriculum: waiting on tables. I understand--direct contact with the public could give anyone the willies. But when the food is as good as it is here, there's no reason at all to be nervous about serving it.
The dining room itself doesn't have much design flair. The linenless tables are set with matching red paper placemats and napkins. You can watch the staff at work in the kitchen through a big window. An extensive collection of gallery art hanging on the walls (all of it for sale) saves the room from terminal drabness.
There's nothing drab, however, about what comes out of the kitchen. The lunchtime menu, which changes weekly, features a three-course meal, budget-priced at $7.50: an appetizer choice of soup or salad; three entree options (generally fish, chicken and red meat dishes); and dessert and beverage. (Closed now for winter break, the cafe resumes operations in mid-January.)
The breadbasket is more hit-or-miss than any other part of the meal. Potato flour rolls are scrumptious. Herb rolls could have used more seasoning punch. But the French bread needs the most work. The texture's all wrong, too light and insubstantial. Whoever runs the bread-baking class ought to take the students over to Wildflower Bakery or the Arizona Bread Company to give them an idea of how great bread should taste. And someone ought to pull the plug on the ugly foil-wrapped butter. Is the school training students to run coffee shops along the interstates?
The faculty knows how to teach soups, though. The ones here all taste like they've spent hours simmering in a kettle. The vigorous split pea with ham sports a beguiling smoky flavor. Lobster bisque, perked up by a Parmesan cheese crisp, is creamy and subtle. There's only a thimbleful of seafood in the seafood soup, but there's no mistaking the aquatic origins of the briny broth. And the hearty clam chowder comes thickly stocked with clams and potatoes.
Starter salads are just as well-crafted. The Gallery Cafe's version of Cobb salad leaves out the bacon (a victim, I imagine, of nutritional correctness), but I couldn't get too worked up over the omission. The greens, tomato, olives, turkey and avocado are tossed with wonderful Maytag blue cheese. I'm glad someone's teaching the students about quality ingredients. Caesar salad also works, right down to the garlic croutons and Parmesan cheese.
The main dishes are very impressive. Students are particularly adept with fish. Fillet of sole comes steamed en papillote, delicately moistened with white wine and embellished with julienned veggies. It's simple, and very effective. Red snapper, baked in a snappy Creole sauce with tomato and celery, also passes every taste test. Fish and chips, meanwhile, are worthy of an English pub: big, freshly battered and fried pieces of cod with just the right crunch. And the kitchen knows to serve it with malt vinegar.
Landlubber entrees demonstrate similar ability. I was wary of student beef Wellington, but you couldn't tell this one had been fashioned by apprentices. The tender filet, wrapped inside a light pastry dough crust lined with duxelles, still makes my mouth water in retrospect. The only off note: a too-salty sauce Perigourdine. Still, I've had $30 beef Wellingtons made by big-name chefs with the same problem. (Someone ought to teach a class on the perils of oversalting, a common kitchen misstep.)
Veal scaloppine, on the other hand, had no noticeable defects. And although the chicken Kiev didn't spurt butter when I stuck in a fork, as tradition demands, it merits a high grade.
What really left me open-mouthed were the fabulous sides, which showed care, flair and attention to detail. One day it was an assortment of winter veggies: buttered parsnips, candied carrots, potato croquettes and yummy braised cabbage gilded with chestnuts. Another visit brought cauliflower sprinkled with butter and breadcrumbs, Brussels sprouts and baked acorn squash. A third trip yielded spaghetti squash, spinach-stuffed tomato (the tomato was carefully peeled) and magnificent fresh salsify. This root vegetable is much-loved in Europe, but almost never served here. I'd say these students are talented enough to open a vegetarian restaurant right now.
The only side they didn't get right were the chips with the fish. If the kitchen is going to go to the trouble to peel and fry spuds, someone needs to make sure they jump to the table directly from the fryer.
Whoever makes desserts should go to the head of the class. The handsome brownie, teamed with mocha ice cream and raspberry sauce, is rich and fudgy, and not too sweet. Pumpkin pie comes just the way I like it--a light crust supporting a dense, heavily seasoned filling. And the pear tart, draped with a spoon-lickin' caramel sauce, looks as good as it tastes.
I don't know if the School of Culinary Arts recruits only talented beginners, or simply trains them right. Let's just hope local restaurants have the smarts to hire them. Class dismissed.
Metro Tech is the vocational training site for the Phoenix Union High School District. One of its more ambitious trade programs is Culinary Arts, which aims to prepare teens for work in the restaurant industry.
To give students real hands-on experience, the school has set up two restaurant operations: a fine-dining room, which every six weeks or so is the setting for a fancy, three-course, prix-fixe luncheon (the next one is scheduled February 3, 4 and 5); and Express Cafe, a less ambitious culinary enterprise that features lunchtime soups, salads, sandwiches and a few hot entrees.
Express Cafe doesn't look like any high school lunchroom I've ever seen. It resembles an old-fashioned diner, with goose-necked lamps hung over vinyl booths, a dessert display at the entrance and seating at the counter for customers in a hurry.
Soups are one of the kitchen's strengths. Creamy potato leek, zipped up with bacon, has lots of flavor. Thick split pea takes the edge off both your appetite and winter's noontime chill. And whoever made the wonderfully delicate puree of gingered acorn squash is ready to graduate right now.
The hot entrees are a mixed bag. The beef stew has potential: It's an enormous portion, stocked with lots of beef and inviting hunks of carrot, potato, celery and onion. But once you start chewing, you can't help noticing that it needs some help. There's no getting around the fact that the beef is really tough. And the dish could use a flavor boost--the instructors might consider teaching students about bay leaves, herbes de Provence and cooking with wine.
Chicken stir fry has no glaring shortcomings. Bits of poultry are tossed with scallions, cabbage, bell pepper and carrot, then served over rice and moistened with a sweetish but not unpleasant teriyaki sauce.
Two specials got the concept right, but couldn't sustain the execution. The cod in puff pastry wasn't a very impressive piece of fish. The puff pastry, meanwhile, at one time clearly had sported the right texture and taste. But it had either sat around too long, or got a bit rubbery in the microwave. I had nothing but high regard, though, for the creamy red pepper sauce drizzled over it. The hefty chicken burrito, invigorated with a peppy salsa and teamed with rice and beans, also had possibilities. Unfortunately, I'll never know for certain, since this platter arrived just short of ice cold.
Sandwiches and salads have little distinction. The bland chicken salad tastes like every other chicken salad in town. Why not introduce the students to the charms of tarragon or curry? The hamburger and tuna aren't any more memorable.
Desserts, however, are. In fact, they're great. The student who made the kiwi tart, with its first-rate crust and lovely custard cream, should have no trouble getting work. Rich chocolate cheesecake, topnotch pecan pie and a gooey Surprise Bar heavy with chocolate chips and coconut also grade out with an A.
A word about the student staff: These kids are so sweet, earnest and well-meaning that I practically wanted to pet them. But they do need training. Among the slip-ups: coming to take our order without pad and pen; bringing soup and entree at the same time; neglecting to set silverware; not knowing the daily special.
And after I ordered a hamburger, what was I to make of this exchange?
Server: How do you want your burger cooked?
Me: Medium, please.
Server: We only cook it well-done.
Me: I'll have it well-done.
Express Cafe isn't a gastronomic experience. But prices are very low. And every time I ate here, I left happy and hopeful--these kids and their teachers are trying. How many other restaurants can send you back to the office in such a good mood?