At one range, a cluster of students armed with tasting spoons samples the soup. At another, a student is preparing a mushroom risotto. Chef Carol Kelly demos making pastry horns to the three students assigned to dessert. These will be baked around pastry tips, then filled with whipped cream.
It is 9:30 on a Thursday morning at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. The class spent yesterday prepping and today the students have been cooking since 8:30, so that the Oliver Smith Restaurant can open at 10:30. Except perhaps for the size of the staff and the watchful eyes of Kelly and another instructor, John Kislo, this could be any restaurant kitchen just before service. What makes this one unique is that the staff is mostly ninth-graders.
Smith Voke, on Locust Street just past Cooley Dickinson Hospital, opened in 1908 as the first vocational school in Massachusetts. In some ways it is a standard high school with the usual complement of academic classes. However, all the classes that would be electives in another school are here given over to 14 shops, ranging from automotive to cosmetology to manufacturing and, yes, culinary arts. Students alternate a week of academic classes with a week of shop. Upon graduation, they earn a high school diploma as well as a certificate of occupational proficiency.
I first learned about the culinary arts program at Smith Voke when my company donated some computer textbooks to the school library and the faculty adviser took me to lunch at the Oliver Smith Restaurant as a thank you. The restaurant, run by the culinary arts department, is open to the public from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when school is in session. Tuesdays are buffet days; on Thursdays and Fridays there is table service.
The restaurant has its own entrance on the right side of the school, so visitors do not have to sign in at the main desk. The clientele is roughly half staff at the school and half outside guests, including many senior citizens.
Today is not a typical day, Kelly advises me. Last night, the program catered the General Advisory Appreciation Dinner for 115, an event which thanks people in the community who serve as advisers to the various shops. In addition, Nelson Lacey, the culinary arts department’s third instructor, is on a field trip with five students. It is also the first truly sunny day of spring, and no one knows whether this means more customers or fewer. But no matter. As in any restaurant, when the doors open, the food must be ready.
Two students, checking broiling chicken breasts for Chicken Francaise, ask Kislo what the final temperature of the chicken should be. “175?” one ventures. Kislo laughs. “In my day…” He lets it hang. “You’re a little high.” “165?” “Right.”
At the pastry station, a student uses a rubber spatula to clean out a tub of whipped cream. “The reason you’re having such a hard time is that you have a big spatula for a small job,” says Kelly. “If you can work with it, fine,” she says, leaving the student to decide whether to switch to a smaller tool.
“Students come in with the Cinderella view of the profession from TV,” Kelly tells me. “We stress industry standards and what will be expected of them when they graduate. They see how hard it is and it either makes them or breaks them and those that love it, go on.” Kislo is himself a graduate of Smith Voke. He went on to work at Page’s Loft in the former Colonial Hilton Hotel in Northampton, then spent 20 years teaching in the culinary program at Pathfinder Regional High School in Palmer before coming back to Smith Vocational. A large man who looks very much the chef, he leads students through the various preparations, quizzing them on the details.
Everything is prepared from scratch, Kelly tells me. Students make stock. The breads and pastries are all baked in-house.
A little after 10, the action begins shifting to the service area. Students clean and fill the hot table, using masking tape to indicate what the covered pans hold. “How do you spell risotto?” asks a student.
The program uses the National Restaurant Association’s ProSTART curriculum, which includes a management component as well as strictly culinary instruction. Those who stay in the field might continue their studies at local culinary programs like the one at Holyoke Community College or at nationally known schools such as the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., or Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Some join the military or simply work in the field. Many spend two years getting their culinary associate’s degree from the expensive schools, then pay in-state rates to earn their B.A. from the department of hospitality and tourism management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Helping out today in Lacey’s absence is Mark Stockwell, a graduate who is now enrolled at Johnson & Wales and is doing an externship at the Delaney House in Holyoke. He graduates in May and will leave almost immediately for England to spend a year in a Marriott training program.
As the orders come in, Kelly shifts to the dining room, doing double duty with the front of the house and desserts. Kislo oversees the hot dishes as they leave the kitchen. The warm spring weather has apparently sent people outside, meaning that the pace is more leisurely than it had been the previous week, when rainy weather packed the restaurant.
At 11:30, I sit down to lunch. The student who seats me is as friendly and professional as any server I’ve had recently. Once she realizes I drink a lot of water, she makes sure my glass is filled regularly. I order the clam chowder and a beef roulade filled with roasted red peppers and spinach. The chowder has a good flavor and is packed with clams. The beef is spot-on medium-rare, with whole white peppercorns in the stuffing contributing a burst of peppery flavor. The risotto that’s served with the entree has a good mushroom flavor, and the candied carrots are buttery and not overly sweet. The prices are reasonable: My soup is $2, the beef $7.50. Other choices include seafood casserole for $7.50 and a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich for $3.50. Tips go into a fund that is used for student programs.
As I eat, I watch people picking up orders to go. The restaurant tries to offer food that can be made and served quickly to accommodate the schedules of the school’s teachers and other staff members, who are among the regulars.
Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 25, 2008