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It’s been a week since Prairie Lights Restaurant — Red River College’s fine-dining training facility — opened it’s doors for dinner service. During the first third of our run, from March 1st through March 16th,  I have the pleasure of working in the front of the house, as a server.

It’s been a fascinating experience thus far, and afforded me an entirely new perspective on the restaurant industry.

I have long held servers in high esteem, and consider their efforts invaluable to any restaurant’s operation. Still, until now, I’d never “walked a mile in their shoes.” What have I learned? More than anything else, it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Indeed, inasmuch as it’s about the details in the kitchen, it’s about the details in the dining room; the small things, done right, that make the difference.The precise placement of flatware, tableware and glassware; the way in which the napkin is folded and set; the artful serving and subsequent removal (from the left, then the right) of food items; the unobtrusive manner in which beverages are served, refilled and, finally, removed (always from the right, and from the stem). Little things, executed effortlessly.

Am I an expert? Hardly! I do, however, appreciate the aim, and am making every effort to reach it.

Of course, being a fine dining restaurant, there are some not-so-small things that must be done well, too.

Whilst rarely seen on most restaurant’s menus nowadays, we offer both a flambéed entrée (Prosciutto, Peach and Thyme-Stuffed Pork Chop Flambéed with Calvados) and dessert item (Crêpe Suzette Flambé), as well as an assortment of specialty coffees (Monte Cristo, Blueberry Tea, to name a few) prepared and flamed table-side.

As such, I’ve also had the chance to play with fire. Literally. It’s been a hoot, though not for the faint of heart — or bushy eye-browed.

While it may be too late for you to witness my table-side flambé skills and sample some of what my culinary peers have been preparing from our first menu, you still have the chance to secure a table and sample Menu 2 or Menu 3 before we close our doors at the end of April. Simply visit Prairie Lights’ website to make a reservation… and have a lovely evening.

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Yesterday marked the beginning of my fifth and final academic semester at Red River College. All that remains, come May, is a final, four-month work placement of my choosing — about which I will have plenty to say as the end of April draws nearer. Until then, I shall be toiling away in the college’s kitchens.

During the first half of the term, I’ll be picking up where I left off last winter, honing my pastry skills in Patisserie Level 2. Then, in the latter half of the term, I’ll be back in the Prairie Lights Restaurant, this time for evening dining service.

I still find it hard to believe my time as an official student of the culinary arts is coming to an end. (I’ll be an unofficial student my entire life, of course.) It’s been such a fantastic journey and I find it remarkable how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come in such a short period of time. It seems like only yesterday I was walking into the classroom for the first time, wondering what lay ahead of me, whether or not I could hack it, why, again, I was doing it.

Thankfully, I’ve answered those questions: I’m doing what I love; damn straight I can hack it; I’ve my whole life ahead of me — and it’s slathered in butter.

Following a stressful, yet successful eight weeks working in the kitchen of Red River College’s Prairie Lights restaurant, I have moved upstairs, to the college’s main foodservice outlet, the Voyageur Cafeteria Dining Room.

Whilst this course is titled, “Regional and Seasonal Cuisine,” in reality it’s all about batch cooking. Sexy? Not really, no. Valuable? It is, absolutely.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so dismissive of the course’s lofty title: throughout we have made a concerted effort to feature local and seasonal products or, when appropriate, various cuisines from around the world.

Like the Hard Drive Cafe and Prairie Lights before it, the Voyageur revolves around a rotation schedule designed to ensure my colleagues and I are able to equally experience all aspects of the kitchen. This time around, it has meant time on the “global” station, wherein we’re responsible for preparing two proteins, a vegetable and a starch for between 60 and 80 people — always with an ethnic or national theme; the “island,” which offers steak sandwiches and a carvery; and, the pizza and pasta station, where we serve personal pizzas and, each day, one of us prepares a fresh pasta special.

It’s been fun. More than that, however, it’s given me more experience in, and an increased familiarity with a large-scale commercial kitchen.

Accurately calculating food quantities; maximizing ingredients on hand; making smart and, often, last-minute recipe substitutions or adaptations: all in a day in the Voyageur.

Not necessarily essential culinary skills, but definitely desirable ones — especially for an aspiring chef.

 

That, broadly speaking, were the parameters of my final lunch dining practical exam. To call it ‘intense’ really doesn’t do it justice, especially when the culinary arts instructors themselves acknowledge it as being the most difficult exam of the entire two-year program.

Naturally, there were a few additional stipulations: the first course had to be a soup or salad; the main had to include a fabricated protein (i.e., stuffed chicken breast, filleted fish), starch, two vegetables and a sauce; dessert had to incorporate a custard of some kind (i.e., ice cream, creme brulee)

The exam was the culmination of my first stint in the college’s fine dining restaurant (the second, next term, for evening dining). During the past six weeks, I moved throughout the kitchen, day-by-day, station-by-station, menu item by menu item. In all, it was a tremendously valuable experience and, better still, was excellent preparation for the final exam. For I’d had six weeks to hone my menu, my skills, and, most importantly, my ability to manage my time efficiently and effectively.

So, what was my menu?

For starters, I served a tomato and fennel soup, garnished with a gorgonzola cream and crispy-fried fennel. For my main, I offered pork tenderloin tournedos with an Apple and Goat Cheese Gratin, Dijon Cream Sauce, Chateau Potatoes, Braised Fennel, Grilled Asparagus and Red Peppers. And, I finished it off with individual pineapple-polenta upside-down cakes with toffee-lime ice cream.

Did I get it done? I did: by 11 o’clock I had plated my soup, by five after, my main, and by 11:10, dessert.

Were there bumps along the way? You bet: soup lacked depth; potatoes should’ve been poached longer; the dessert plate lacked a contrasting colour; above all, I didn’t work as cleanly as I should have or as I normally do.

Did I pass? Absolutely.

Biga. Poolish. Sourdough Starter. Old Dough.

All roads lead to Rome — and so many good breads start with one of the aforementioned pre-ferments. For a really good Focaccia, trust the Italian biga. Which is precisely what I did this past week; my first back in the culinary classroom following my summer work placement.

Much like my time in Red River College’s Hard Drive Café, during my first year of culinary arts, I am currently in a section of the program — Lunch Dining — that divides the kitchen up into sections through which my classmates and I rotate on a daily basis. And on my first day of lunch service in Prairie Lights Restaurant, and the week of class that preceded it, I was on the Breads Station.

Hence the Focaccia. And dinner rolls. And scones. And na’an. And poppodoms.

Yeah, it’s been busy. But I’m proud to say, after a few missteps, I managed to get a pretty good handle on the Focaccia (one chef even went so far as to say I “mastered it”!) and all the other breads for which I was responsible.

From here, I slide into the roll of Chef, then Sous, then Expediter, before moving through the line and around the kitchen.

It’s early days, but I feel pretty good about my second year as a culinary arts student. I’m terribly anxious to learn as much as I can, expanding both my breadth of knowledge and set of skills.

After all, I’m not getting any younger — and time, famously, waits for no man. So, let’s get going!

Yes, Chef!