Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Of Pumpkins and Gelatin Cups

"We don't really have a Visitors' Center anymore. Budget cuts, y'know," was the explanation from the representative from the office with "Riverside Convention and Visitors Bureau" printed on the door. "Everything is on the internet now."

However, all was not lost. In the small handful of informational material was Riverside magazine. Within that was an article entitled "Culinary Education" about the Culinary Academy of Riverside City College.

Before leaving Pennsylvania, we had become regulars at Aspirations, the restaurant operated by the faculty and students of the culinary arts program at Middle Bucks Technical Institute in Jamison. We had enjoyed talking with the students about their career plans and had been impressed with the achievements of the students. One had won a scholarship to the prestigous culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI.

So, we headed to Riverside, anticipating a good meal with the opportunity to talk to some of the students.

Well, on this visit we achieved only one of our objectives.

The parking lot was strangely empty. We then noticed the "Closed" sign at the door, and while we sat thinking of an alternative plan for lunch, Chef Mark approached us.

"We're closed today. There's a special banquet."

Before we could comment, Mark continued, "But week after next we'll be having some competition among the students." He then talked about his preparation for the upcoming competition.

As he talked, Mark's enthusiasm for his work shone through. Though in his late 50's, he was having a great time as a student in the Culinary Arts program.

"I use wood carving tools to carve pumpkins," he said as he showed us two pumpkins he retrieved from his car nearby. "I'm really pleased with learning how to carve scales on the fishes on this pumpkin. By the way, you may have these two."

Following our description of our travels, Mark talked about his goals of learning ice carving and of being a cook on a particular type of ship, "I want to sail and being a cook is one of the four paid positions (on the ship that I can't remember)--everyone else is a volunteer." He talked about his earlier travels and his plans to open a restaurant in Thailand, the home of his girlfriend.

But he was really charged up about the competition with the younger students. He ran into the restaurant and returned with these "cups" made from unflavored gelatin with Thai chile slices encased in the gelatin. (The cups were for display purposes only.)

His joy with his creative accomplishment was apparent. His animated account of devising a way to form the mold to form these unique containers showed that he was taking the competition with his younger fellow chefs-to-be very seriously.

We learned that he planned to fill the cups with colored Tapioca balls he found in a Vietnamese grocery. We also learned that in that same grocery store he found a gluten product that would enable him to prepare a vegetarian duck--but that's another story.

To share in our second visit to the Culinary Academy, we invited my (Chuck) aunt Margaret and cousin Sandra to join us. We achieved both of our objectives this time.

When you walk through the doors, you are immediately reminded of a school cafeteria. While there is a line of booths along one wall, most of the seating is at institutional-style Formica tables with institutional stacking chairs. The recessed ceiling with its plastic covered fluorescent lights complete the picture.

Just before the dining area was a table displaying the day’s specials--a Waldorf chicken salad, a meatball pizza, a jerk chicken sandwich, a ham and cheese panini, a pasta, and a chicken breast. Although there are a few permanent menu items (tossed salad, a hamburger, soup and salad combo) the menu changes almost daily to give the students a wide range of gastronomic challenges.

While on-line reviews said that they produce a mean burger, everyone said to order the specials. So that is what each of us did.

Our lunches came with a choice of soup or salad and all four of us chose the Minnesota Wild Rice soup. This combined wild rice, butternut squash, carrots, pearl onions, and potatoes in an herb flavored stock. And it was served steaming hot! We were off to a good start.

For Margaret, it would be the special ham and pepper jack cheese Panini (Like me, Margaret is a fan of spicy food). And this was creatively garnished with two thin potato slices fused together with a parsley leaf and mushroom slice in between. While Margaret commented about this being too much food to finish, the next thing one knew her plate was empty.

For Sandra it was the Waldorf chicken salad—a truly beautiful plate. The molded portion of chicken salad was topped with baby greens and granny smith apple slices and the plate was garnished with pecans, grape halves, and orange slices.

Just as I have this new craving for fish and seafood, Chuck has a craving for pasta—especially penne. So when I saw the penne with crab, shrimp, and fish in a garlic parmesan cream sauce, I knew that this would be his choice. And if it hadn’t been his choice it would have been mine. This was delicious. The student chef had used just enough garlic and cheese to provide flavor without engulfing the delicate taste of the seafood. And later we learned that Chef Mark had been the man behind the pasta.

I ordered the Chicken Florentine and while the combination of food items on my plate may seem strange, somehow everything worked. The juicy breast of chicken had been stuffed with a rice and spinach mixture; the grilled rice cake was a little bit dry, but otherwise tasty; and the butternut squash puree had a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. But the hit of the plate was a lasagna-like concoction made with eggplant and marinara sauce. I must admit that eggplant is one of my least favorite members of the vegetable family, but I would eat this eggplant again (and again).

The menu offered two dessert choices. I ordered the homemade coffee ice cream with warm mini donuts. I would have liked more coffee in the ice cream, but it was still good.

Sandra, Margaret, and Chuck all ordered the Chiboust Cream Mousse with caramel sauce. According to Wikipedia, Crème Chiboust is a crème pâtissière (pastry cream), lightened with whipped cream or stiffly beaten egg whites. This was as good a dessert as you would find in fine dining restaurant. The cream was lightly flavored with lemon and was both light and rich at the same time. The scoop of chiboust cream sat in a pool of pureed raspberries and was drizzled with a caramel sauce.

Our servers for the day were Brandon and Tracy with Brandon taking the lead role. To say that he is personable and outgoing is an understatement. This man has a future in the hospitality business. He is too early in his academic program to be in the kitchen yet, but I’d love to go back and see what he creates once he gets there.

We weren't sure if the ribbons in this photo represented awards that had been won or awards that would be distributed to the student winners in next week's competition. However, we were sure of this award: "The Riverside City College Culinary Academy's restaurant was the recipeint of the American Culinary Federation 2009 Achieement of Excellence Award in the full-service restaurant facility category, the highest award in the nation for a culinary school restaurant."

A program that nurtures the motivation and creativity of both Brandon and Mark will be earning more awards--and so will their graduates.

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