A different kind of farm-to-table restaurant: Behind the scenes at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School 

  • Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School student Alura Carter, above left, would eventually like to open her own bakery. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School student Alura Carter, above, would like to open her own bakery. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Chef Nelson Lacey, right, helps a student at the Oliver Smith Restaurant in Smith Vocational School. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • An almond vanilla bean cake with white chocolate buttermilk frosting and raspberry coulis. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Almost all of the proteins — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck — come from the student-run farm, and greens come from an on-campus hydroponic farm, Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • The Oliver Smith Restaurant, which is attached to Smith Vocational School, served its first student-made meal in 1977. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Almost all of the proteins — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck — come from the student-run farm, and greens come from an on-campus hydroponic farm, Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Almost all of the proteins — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck — come from the student-run farm, and greens come from an on-campus hydroponic farm, Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

@AndyCCastillo
Published: 5/31/2019 3:33:54 PM

Mint mocha mousse with a glazed mirror finish hides a fudge brownie center, and almond vanilla bean cakes with white chocolate buttermilk frosting are drizzled with raspberry coulis.

Someday, Alura Carter, a senior at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, wants to open her own bakery. Until then, she is sharpening her culinary skills at Oliver Smith Restaurant, which is attached to the Northampton technical school and served its first student-made meal in 1977.

“To see people smile when I give them a desert makes my day,” Carter said as she squeezed whipped ganache onto a vanilla bean tart. On a stainless steel kitchen table beside her, dozens of the mint mocha mousse and sweet vanilla bean cakes waited to be taken outside to the restaurant, which was packed to capacity with customers, by an entourage of other students. 

“I’m sure there’s a little shell-shock. Today, it’s all on them,” said Chef Nelson Lacey, director of the school’s Culinary Arts Department. For the next two days, Lacey says the restaurant will be run entirely by the students, a challenge that culminates four years of hands-on instruction, and will be graded for their performance. Throughout the semester, the students rotated through roles each week, from front-of-the-house to prepping food to washing the dishes. Leading up to when the doors opened at 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Lacey says his students designed the menus, prepped the dishes, ordered the food, and did everything else necessary to make sure things ran smoothly. 

The menu featured Asian-style duck, meatloaf, pulled pork, garlic mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, chicken Alfredo, shrimp scampi and a beef round roast with gravy. On the side is a choice of chicken Caesar salad — “they don’t have any Romaine lettuce, that is one of their mistakes,” Lacey said — wild rice salad or potato salad. Carter’s desserts, which were a favorite of Elizabeth Loven of Gosen, rounded out the meal.

“I’ve been wanting to come here all year. The shrimp scampi was my favorite and the desserts, which are delicious,” said Peg Ciminera, also from Goshen, who was carrying a small plate of the mint mocha mousse back to her table.

In the commercial kitchen, Sophomore Aryceli Torres washed dishes. Beyond her, Lacey helps a student toss a salad. At a stove, Sophomore Eric Leet sliced the beef roast and Nathaniel Renfrow, a senior, simmered a vegetable medley. The sound of dishes clanging and the aroma of cooking filled the space, which Chef Brenda Fortin, an instructor in the culinary program, said provides real-world experience for future chefs.

“Each student is different. Alura wants to be a baker, Trinity wants to open her own beef jerky business. You can go in any direction you want,” Fortin said. “Tempers flare, just like a real restaurant. It’s so much fun, and it keeps me young.”

Besides working the cook line, Lacey said the students get to experience a true farm-to-table restaurant. 

“Almost all of our proteins (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck) come from the student-run farm,” he said. Greens come from an on-campus hydroponic farm, and next year, Lacey says he’s hoping to source fresh Tilapia from the school as well.

For Renfrow, the hands-on program has prepared him for the next step — classes at The Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he has already been accepted. Over the past four years, Renfrow says he’s earned industry-standard certificates in food safety and cooking temperatures and studied business practices like “taxes, rent, and how to keep the lights on,” in addition to culinary techniques such as knife skills and how to prepare custard or pastries. 

“I could write a book. We have learned pretty much everything you can know in a kitchen,” he said. In an ideal world, Renfrow says he eventually wants to work at an upscale restaurant like Student Prince Cafe And Fort Restaurant in Springfield. 

Just then, Nyisha Sattis, a senior who was managing the front, pushed open the door and called, “We’re running low on scampi, pulled pork and mashed potatoes. Anything you can get out right away would be great.”

Before leaving to refill the pork, Renfrow says he most enjoys the creative aspect of cooking that he’s learned at the school.

“I can throw anything into a pot and make it work,” he said.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.




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