School lunch, gourmet style
It is just after 11 am on Thursday, Feb. 12, and lunch is being served.
Wearing a high pleated white chef's hat, Jack O'Malley, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School culinary arts teacher, is fielding students' questions and assigning last-minute kitchen and serving duties. He's surprisingly calm as he instructs one student to season the salmon while sampling the sauce that another teen has presented for his final approval. He recommends adding salt, and then checks to make sure the dining room staff has set up the coffee and water stations.
Photos by M.C. Wallo
Once a month, along with participants in Island senior centers, people are welcome to enjoy a gourmet luncheon prepared and served by students in the regional high school's culinary arts program. The student servers are skilled and attentive, refilling water and coffee cups frequently.
The menu today is in hues of pink in honor of the upcoming Valentine's Day. Beginning with a salad of field greens lightly dressed with a pomegranate vinaigrette, and topped with candied pecans and Parmesan cheese, the meal is a feast of attractively presented gourmet treats.
In keeping with the theme, perfectly grilled salmon is topped with beurre rouge, a variation on a classic beurre blanc, but for this afternoon made with red rather than white wine.
"I've never had fresh salmon like this," raves Windemere resident Elizabeth Mendolia.
Sandy Blythe, who attends the luncheon with her husband, Bob, almost every month, is unexpectedly pleased with today's offering. "I'm not a person who likes salmon, but this sauce is delicious," she exclaims.
Student creativity is in evidence in the presentation of the ratatouille side dish. The traditional elements of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato are stacked, with a crispy slice of breaded, fried eggplant serving as the base. Mr. O'Malley explains that one of his students was inspired for the deconstructed dish from a scene in the animated movie "Ratatouille." The result is visually appealing and the dish has a nice freshness thanks to lightly steamed zucchini and a large fresh tomato slice on the top.
The small culinary arts dining room resembles a sunny cafe with high ceilings and a wall of windows. The high school's horticulture students help with the décor by providing plants and maintaining a fish tank, both of which are changed periodically. In addition, student artwork - photographs, drawings, paintings and ceramics - is also rotated regularly to keep up the room 's inviting appearance.
Adding elegance to the occasion, a jazz trio of students led by high school music teacher Mike Tinus, performs. Normally the music is classical, Mr. Tinus explains, but this afternoon, romance rules and music from the 1930s and 40s is being played. An additional treat is the singing of Amalie Tinus, Mr. Tinus's talented daughter. A high school freshman, she performs a lovely rendition of "Autumn Leaves" for the appreciative audience.
White-coated students are bustling around the school's large, state-of- the-art commercial kitchen. Each month, the teens take turns cooking, serving, and carrying out all the catering tasks.
A group of about 25 guests begin arriving just before 11. People wave to their friends. Groups gather at tables, hugs are exchanged, and lively conversation fills the room. The foursome at one table is made up of seniors who were acquainted through attendance at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center but who are taking the opportunity to get to know each other better. Laughter erupts frequently from this table and the group is also sharing jokes and comments with an adjacent table. Several Windemere residents are accompanied by two volunteers, including Armen Hanjian, who points out that the group enjoys the outing as much as the meal.
The culinary arts program has an enrollment of close to 50 students.
Mr. O'Malley explains that the course is about 80 percent hands-on training in the kitchen with the rest of the time spent studying culinary essentials in the classroom. Some students go on to food service careers. Mr. O'Malley notes that a number of his former students can be found in local restaurants and some have attended prestigious culinary schools.
Junior Julian Willett and sophomore Sophia Hart are undecided about their future plans, but both really enjoy the course and plan to continue in it. Of course, in a resort area like the Vineyard, restaurant skills come in handy when seeking employment. Mr. Willett worked last summer for a catering company and Ms. Hart hopes to secure a restaurant job this coming season.
Director of Island Councils on Aging Leslie Clapp arranges for and oversees the luncheons. For $10, the diners are treated to a three- course meal and the students have the opportunity to exhibit their skills and get some vocational experience.
Today's finishing touch is a delicious light, fluffy raspberry mousse.
All of the attendees seem to think that the meal was another smashing success. Some comment on the value. Jean Bishop of Edgartown, who is an adult day care volunteer, appreciates the fact that healthy foods are always offered.
Comments Ms. Blythe, "Besides the fact that you're getting entertainment and food, you're also supporting the kids."
To reserve a place at the culinary arts lunch, generally the second Thursday of the month, contact Leslie Clapp at 508-939-9440.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.