Students serve seniors a Valentine’s Day feast

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What could be more joyful for Valentine’s Day than spending it with good friends over fine dining while being serenaded by inspiring music — all coming from the hearts and hands of culinary arts and music departments students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School?

On Thursday, the Culinary Arts dining room was festooned with hearts and red-and-white menus featuring a mouthwatering first course of a Tricolore Salad with balsamic and garlic vinaigrette, then a beautifully plated Chicken Oscar with asparagus, crabmeat, and hollandaise sauce, and topped off with a delicious chocolate pudding.

Diners ranged in age, but the invitation to this monthly luncheon was to those 55 years old and up. The boisterous group included regulars and first-timers. Although a van full of Windemere residents, driven by Armen Hanjian, comes regularly to the lunches, there were many other guests who heard about it by word of mouth from friends. Heidi Feldman of Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt had gathered a group of women for the luncheon, including Lori Calio, Dale Julier, Molly Sturges, Heidi Dietterich, and Maggie Brown, who all came to enjoy each other’s company as well as for the eats.

“My parents actually came to this 23 or 24 years ago, and they really enjoyed it, so they were really thrilled that I was doing this,” Sturges said. “Plus, these are really great girlfriends.” Brown felt “It would be a fun way to meet some people, and plus I’m a foodie, so I love any food-related thing as well. And it’s Valentine’s, right?”

Chef and teacher Jack O’Malley took time to speak to me, since his junior and senior high school student crew had everything under control, having cooked the food, plated it, and served it to the diners. He says he has in total seven or eight juniors and seniors, around 25 sophomores, and the freshmen class of around 130 come through his program. “I’ve been teaching kids for 15 years, which has gone by rather quickly,” O’Malley said. “I think it’s a good career for someone on the Island because, obviously, they have to work a lot during the summer if you’re a caterer or work in a restaurant, but they can have the winters to do something else.

“More than half the students go into culinary school, and some go right into the industry. I’ve had one kid who now works with the Cheesecake Factory, and does openings all around the world. I’ve had another student who just started at Pebble Beach Golf Club in California. Some kids are still on the Island, some kids travel all over the country, all over the world. It’s very rewarding. And we’re very blessed. The network of chefs on the Island is unbelievable. A lot of them have ties to New York and Los Angeles, and they help the kids get jobs nationally. The kids can work in restaurants that other students have to go to college and get internships to come to the Island to get, and here you can do it as your high school job.”

I learned about an MVRHS alumni who is working locally from diner Donna Beckman, who has been coming to the luncheons every month for about three years. “I like the company and the food. And my daughter was in high school here and did the culinary program. Now she’s the executive pastry chef at the Black Dog,” Beckman said.

The music contributed greatly to the lively ambience. I spoke to the four guitarists from the music department afterward, and junior Kieran Karbes told me he’d played for these seniors a few times during his freshman year, adding, “I love doing it. It’s fun since you get to play music for a cause. It’s fun to entertain people too.”

Junior Skyler Hall played at the lunch the previous month. Hall is dedicated to his music, explaining, “I think it’s really fun playing for this group. It’s laid-back.”

Senior Robert Hanjain performs frequently at Windemere. “I go over there for an hour usually every other Friday. It feels great playing; it’s entertaining,” Hanjian said. He likes playing for the seniors because “they usually like the music I like, which is interesting. Like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, just the classic stuff they probably grew up on … and I grew up on, because my parents played it for me. That’s the kind of music I enjoy, and the seniors here seem to like it too.”

It was junior James Murray’s second time playing for the event. “I didn’t know [the luncheons] were even going on until the music teacher came up and asked me to play. I like playing music with my friends in front of an audience. And the crowd is pretty nice too; all good people,” he said, smiling.

Behind the scenes in the large industrial kitchen, I asked Mya Costello what brought her to the culinary program. “I have a very big interest with my background, because my family has a lot of experience with the food industry. I like working in a fast-paced environment where I don’t have to sit,” she said.

Junior Delilah Quinones pulled out a tray of heart-shaped red-and-white decorated Valentine cookies and said, “We’re all just prep cooks, and when we do functions, I’m one of the main servers that goes out and helps everyone. I prefer cooking. I have wanted to cook my entire life, so this was the reason for joining this program. If you have a passion for cooking, then you should succeed in that and come join us in the culinary program.”

The luncheons for people 55 years and older occur the second Thursday of each month at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Music begins at 11 am, and lunch service begins at 11:30.