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The scene is familiar: diners dressed to the nines led eagerly to white-clothed tables, softly lit with twinkle lights and candles. Server Mitchell Chavez-Catron explained that the seven-course menu was inspired by the cuisine of the Auvergne and the Rhone Alps region of France.
To start, a seafood canape followed by a panzanella salad tossed in a honey lavender dressing and local tomato gazpacho. After a pear sorbet to cleanse the palette, the entree arrives: pork fricassee with gratin dauphinois and sauteed spinach, followed by lemon ricotta cake for dessert and walnut shortbread mignardise with coffee to cap the evening.
This meal was not served by chefs at a five-star restaurant. It was designed, created and executed by culinary students at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield.
For a few years now, the community college’s culinary program has hosted a series of fine-dining nights throughout the fall semester.
“We have a lot of locals that just love it,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at the college. “This year, it’s become really popular. We have a lot of repeat guests [who] market for us [through word-of-mouth].”
Executing the event is part of the small-culinary program’s curriculum, but it is still a logistical feat. The learning extends beyond the cooking.
“We serve 35 people on Friday nights for six Friday nights,” Enjaian said. “That’s a lot of courses. We only have eight students and 245 dishes. They take care of that within a two hour period.”
Several community colleges in Maine host fine-dining events associated with their culinary arts programs. The students, who often go on to work in Maine’s burgeoning restaurant scene, are not only taught how to plan menus and prepare interesting, quality dishes, but they also get real-world experience connecting with local food systems to make it possible, forging connections that may carry into the future.
Training the next generation of restaurateurs
Southern Maine Community College in South Portland hosts upscale luncheons for six weeks each semester throughout the academic year in conjunction with their classes in buffet preparation and a la carte dining.
“We’ve been here for 20-plus years,” said Maureen LaSalle, department chair of culinary arts at the college. “When we start taking reservations at the beginning of the semester, we’ll book up and have a waitlist. It is a bit of a challenge, but a good challenge to have.”
Similarly, Eastern Maine Community College’s Rangeley Cafe in Bangor has been consistently serving weekly, gourmet, prix fixe lunches — French cuisine in the fall semester, and international in the spring — for almost two decades
“We emulate what [culinary schools] do, but we do it in a very affordable, approachable manner,” said Jay Demers, co-chair of culinary arts and restaurant and food service management at the college. “[Students] are looking at six grand for tuition. That’s not a huge investment for what comes out on the other side.”
Aside from accessibility and affordability for students, Demers said that the hands-on experience prepares students for the reality of working in the restaurant industry.
“It’s a great way for students to learn not just our opinions, but what the customers like,” Demers said. “Everybody has different likes and dislikes and dietary restrictions. [It makes] the real world piece easier.”
Learning how to buy local
The events also teach students where and how to source quality ingredients, particularly from local vendors. Not only does Kennebec Valley Community College source much of its produce and meat locally, but Enjaian said that she and her students request seafood from vendors sourced from the Gulf of Maine. La Salle works with Harbor Fish, Native Maine and Oakhurst Dairy for Southern Maine Community College’s culinary program events.
“We’re a community college, so we want to support the community around us,” La Salle said. “Supporting local is a smart way for us to show our commitment to the industry as a whole, [and] I think that local purchasing allows us to be really creative.”
For many programs, purchasing is part of the coursework, and then students have the opportunity to use their skills for fine-dining events.
“We have a purchasing class that all of our students need to take [that goes over] where we’re getting our produce from and comparatively shopping to make sure our pricing is competitive,” La Salle said. “Sometimes, it does cost a little bit more to buy local, but local sourcing allows us to build relationships with these purveyors. It’s a win-win.”
LaSalle said that many of her students — and others at community colleges throughout the state — funnel directly into local eateries, so their knowledge, experience and connections stay local.
“It shows to our entire student population to being supportive to small farms of small businesses,” La Salle said. “These students see what we’re doing, and they might take that and bring it back into their workplaces. We educate inside and allow them to educate outside.”
Impact of buying local
Enjaian said that partnering with local suppliers not only gives students an awareness of where food comes from, but also offers more creativity in the culinary programs.
“We have some cool things that I haven’t experienced in other culinary schools,” Enjaian said. “We get whole animals, so we fabricate whole pig and whole lamb. We have connections with farms here in the area so able to bring in locally — that way, [students] really learn the parts of meat.”
Ben Slayton, owner of Farmers’ Gate Market, a whole-animal butchery based in Wales, Maine, is one such local provider. He said that since the beginning, Kennebec Valley Community College has asked for whole cuts or hard-to-sell parts of meat — for example, chicken carcasses or other animal bones used to prepare stock and bone broth for classes or fine-dining events.
“They’re buying larger quantities of goods that we need to sell,” Slayton said. “They’re doing it to fully develop their students an understanding of the importance of sourcing and protecting local food systems. We kind of get double bang for our buck: we’re making the sale, and we’re also continuing to educate the next wave of people that are going to be owning the restaurants.”
The connections with community colleges provide solid, easy partnerships for niche, small farmers and butchers like Slayton.
“In working with KVCC, I just get a feeling that there’s a little less [red tape] I have to churn through,” Slayton said. “It’s a lot harder for the bigger institutions to work with small shops like me.”
Local sourcing is great, but in the future, Enjaian sees one more missing link in the culinary program’s comprehensive approach to food systems: in-house sourcing of produce and meat, to give those popular fine dining nights an extra farm-to-table flair.
“Right now, our agriculture program is shut down, which makes me really sad to say,” Enjaian said. “That, to me, is the pinnacle of farm to table.”