Petite senior citizen Barbara Mudgett-Russell snaps on a purple, flower-patterned bib and sits down to a plate of food at the Colonial Room in Essex Junction, while her husband, Clinton Russell, tucks into a bowl of soup. "We eat here whenever we can," he enthuses. "We compare it to the food on a cruise. Ninety-five percent of the time, it's that quality."
Luckily for the Russells and all the other Colonial Room patrons, the all-you-can-eat buffet lunch here runs $4, a deal you won't get on the Queen Mary 2. And hungry folks who don't mind the out-of-the-way location and nonexistent décor will find that the nosh is a far cry from the canned green beans and frozen tater tots that appear at many buffets. The Colonial Room offers a choice of two soups, two entrées, a small salad bar and up to six different desserts. Almost everything is made from scratch.
What kind of restaurant can afford to offer freshly made food at that price point? One that's run by a culinary school, namely the Professional Food Services program at the Center for Technology, Essex, located inside Essex High School. Here, the food is prepared by a group of 36 high school juniors and seniors who hail from 10 area "sending schools," such as Essex, Colchester and Milton. Some of these youngsters dream of owning their own restaurants. Others are less interested in a life in the kitchen than they are in a hands-on alternative to the lessons and lectures offered by traditional "college-prep" programs.
Of the 21 Tech Centers listed on the Vermont Department of Education website, 14 offer programs in Culinary Arts or Food and Beverage Management. One thing that sets CTE apart is its Chittenden County location — conveniently close to a "plethora of restaurants" where students can seek employment, points out CTE Chef Instructor Jonathan Hoffman. Another point of pride for the program is its students' performance at a statewide competition called "Vermont Skills USA," whose gold-medal winners advance to a national contest. Says Hoffman, "We've sent at least one student to the [national] Skills competition for the past 10 years." One of them was Katelyn McCarthy, who snagged second place in the Culinary Arts category in 2006.
On a recent morning, CTE students gather at the institutional round tables of the Colonial Room, where paying customers will sit a few hours from now. After morning announcements, the program's six second-year students head off to study math and science — or, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to whip up meals for the Essex High School Cafeteria. First-year students split into three groups. One contingent heads to the bakery with Chef Brian McMann, who has been at CTE for 30 years, to cream butter and sugar and learn about the intricacies of yeast. Another follows teacher Susan Pratt to get a lesson on the "front of the house." In addition to dining-room management, she covers topics such as nutrition and "life skills." The remaining students go with Chef Jonathan Hoffman, a 1997 graduate of Randolph's Tech Center, as he heads toward the spacious, industrial kitchen. I tag along.
Chef Hoffman, who formally greets each student by his or her last name preceded by "Mr." or "Ms.," wastes no time before asking his charges to gather around a stainless steel table in the center of the room. There he lifts a 10-pound salmon, head still attached and eyes blank, from a sheet pan. A few of the students profess not to like seafood. "You've really gotta open your minds to different things," the chef scolds gently.
As he begins working the fish over, Hoffman patters like a magician. First, he explains why he never eats fish on a Sunday: "It's not fresh," he says, noting how long it takes to get fish from the boat to a Vermont restaurant. Still talking, he decapitates the salmon in one quick motion, then slides his chef knife deftly between skin and flesh. Blood trickles onto the cutting board. The students have ceased to protest, but Hoffman adds one more caveat for good measure: "If this makes you uncomfortable, go into baking or get used to it."
It's now 10 o'clock, and the demonstration portion of the morning is over. In just an hour, the Colonial Room's doors will open and hungry patrons will stream in. "We've gotta rock. Limit the conversations. Ask questions later," Hoffman says. Leaving a second fish in student Rachel Bono's hands — "I've never even seen a whole fish, let alone filleted one," she says — he begins barking commands to his remaining charges, who spring into action. A few students flour drumsticks for chicken Forestier; others sauté mushrooms, and still others slice tomatoes and scoop macaroni salad into containers for the salad bar. When one student says he's unclear on what to do next, Hoffman asks, "You don't remember, or you didn't listen?"
This tough-love stuff is part of Chef Hoffman's shtick. "This is an exploratory year," he explains, in which the students must learn "the difference between watching the Food Network and getting a job in a kitchen." In addition to teaching the cooks-in-training how to julienne carrots and simmer stock, Hoffman makes sure they find out if they can take the heat. "I didn't go to culinary school," he says. "I went to the school of hard knocks . . . it's not all warm milk and brownies." "It's not easy," he continues. "I'm not nice . . . You've gotta be able to jump to, handle the pressure, handle an off-color joke without getting offended." Want something more relaxed? "Take a home ec class," he advises.
For all the chef's bluster, he's clearly mindful of his students' feelings. One young man who walks through the kitchen wearing a buttoned shirt and tie gets good-natured ribbing. Hoffman praises each culinary success, whether it's cooking a vegetable just right or remembering an earlier lesson. He looks for more than innate skill in his students. "It's really the character of a person [that matters]," he suggests. "Be polite, respectful and on time." Chef McMann agrees: "It's learning to be a good worker. Even if you don't go into it [cooking or baking], it serves you well."
But Hoffman isn't just concerned about how his charges will perform in the workplace; his philosophical asides suggest he'd also like to make them better citizens of the globe. Slicing the farm-raised salmon, he muses aloud about the Vermont penchant for PC produce. "Try 'n' feed 6 billion people organic, see how that goes," he snorts. After "shocking" a batch of pasta with a pot of cold water, the chef notes that he's just "used more water to cool off that pasta than most families of four use in one day to cook and clean themselves." Americans, he claims, "sit here in this bubble. Can you imagine not knowing if you'll have food for dinner?"
Hoffman's unique brand of snark and solicitousness may seem odd to someone used to the touchy-feely talk in traditional classrooms, but in this fast-paced, practical environment, the chef's approach seems to be working. As Vanessa O'Brien stirs chicken stock — which she made the previous day — into a pan of risotto, she says, "Chef is a bundle of fun. He makes sarcastic remarks, but he's just trying to get you moving. He's really respectful."
Though it's only their second day actually cooking, the students whiz around the kitchen as if they've been doing it for months, with cries of "Oven open!" and "Behind you with hot pans!" to warn their fellows of potential danger. Most answer this reporter's questions with a confidence that belies their age.
In addition to cooking for all comers, CTE students do community service, preparing meals for Whitcomb Woods, a senior retirement center, and participate in local and national cooking competitions. For a few of the best students, the next step will be internships at local restaurants.
While many graduates work at hotels and college dining halls, a select group lands plum positions. Café Shelburne, where CTE grad Scott Fay is the sous chef, regularly recruits students from the program, according to Hoffman. Another alum who's heating up the culinary world is Chef Dave Pratt, part owner of Burlington's Green Room. Though he wasn't good about cleaning up after himself when he was in high school, Hoffman notes with a chuckle, he now runs a restaurant with a pristine open kitchen. As for Pratt's culinary creations, such as duck confit quesadillas and venison "sliders," Hoffman suggests, "He's taken it to the next level."
One current attendee, senior Colby Smith, is already getting a taste of the local resto world. In addition to holding down a job at NECI, he's working in the kitchen of Burlington's A Single Pebble. "Most American-Chinese restaurants use two sauces. They [at Single Pebble] use 30," he says with awe. Another bonus is that "everything's fresh." Smith has already received one scholarship toward his culinary school education, and he's planning to apply for several more.
For students like Pratt, Fay and Smith, the CTE culinary program supplies job training in one of the nation's largest industries — plus a healthy dose of self-confidence. Chef McMann guesses that 50 to 75 percent of kids in high school "aren't necessarily on an academic track," and "could benefit from hands-on opportunities like the ones at CTE." But the program remains "a well-kept secret," he says. "People don't know about it. We have to recruit students, 'cause they're not aware it's an option."
Keeping that secret may be just fine with the folks who dine at the Colonial Room, be they seniors on fixed incomes, teachers tired of traditional cafeteria food or locals looking for what's probably the region's best food value. "When they open the doors," customer Kathy Valiquette says, "you can smell that divine smell." Agrees Clinton Russell, "The desserts are to die for."
That feedback means a lot to the kids in the kitchen. "They see that they can be successful," says Chef McMann of his students, "maybe for the first time in their lives."
The food may be dirt-cheap, but is it good? The day after the Colonial Room opened for the school year, I tried almost every lunch item on offer. The verdict: This really is a great deal. The only caveat: If you're used to traditional restaurant seasoning, you may frequently grab for the salt shaker. Chef Hoffman doesn't like using a lot of the saline stuff.
Two soups, cream of tomato and turkey vegetable, were comfy starters on a crisp fall day. Nicely diced carrots and celery swam alongside bits of poultry in a golden broth. It tasted mild - a sprinkling of salt helped to make the flavors pop - but fresh. The tomato soup was more enticing, with a full-bodied texture and big, summery flavor.
A trip to the small but well-stocked salad bar proved rewarding. Standout items were crunchy coleslaw and a well-seasoned macaroni salad. Other choices included a bean salad, a cheerful yellow curried rice mixture and a small selection of veggies for a DIY tossed salad.
Both the grilled pork chops topped with mushrooms and the braised chicken Forestier, which came with cubes of red potato and butternut squash in a rich, veal-stock-based sauce, were just right. A steamed-veggie medley - crisp-tender cauliflower, broccoli and carrots - and a swirl of browned duchess potatoes paired perfectly with either one.
As I sampled, the Russells and their companion, bus driver Dave Clough, regaled me with stories of dishes they'd tried at the Colonial Room over the years - Clinton Russell has frequented the place for the past two decades. Mudgett-Russell says the students give her opportunities to sample international fare. Clough recalls a special dish prepared by a group visiting the school from Afghanistan.
All that lunch left me little room for dessert. Although the éclairs, carrot cake and chocolate pie - to name just a few of the sweets on offer- looked delicious, the decadent layer cake with mocha buttercream proved irresistible.
Colonial Room, 3 Educational Drive, Essex Junction, 879-5595. Hours vary, so call ahead.