Gourmet meals at budget prices

Aspiring chefs students show off their skills in the dining room.

A student of the culinary arts program cuts a chocolate mousse cake for a customer at the Nova Scotia Community College’s restaurant on the Akerley campus in Dartmouth. Photo: Jessica Emin
A student of the culinary arts program cuts a chocolate mousse cake for a customer at the Nova Scotia Community College’s restaurant on the Akerley campus in Dartmouth. Photo: Jessica Emin

A restaurant with candle light, white linens and rich aromas wafting from the kitchen is open three nights a week in Dartmouth, but, surprisingly, it’s in a school. The restaurant is on the Akerley campus of the Nova Scotia Community College and second-year culinary arts students run the kitchen.

This fall, the restaurant will be open on Thursdays evenings with a themed buffet where students will be feet away from their guests and will be preparing gourmet cuisine before their eyes.

The dining room sits about 60 people, has a full service bar and an extensive wine list. The food served is artistic, innovative and beautiful. Each dish, from the apple-fennel salad to the butternut squash risotto with fresh sage and honey jus, is prepared by students. Guests are getting much more in quality and quantity than the $35 they paid.

For the past few years the restaurant has been open on Tuesday and Wednesday nights only, with an à la carte menu. This year professor and chef Claude Aucoin offers the culinary students a new experience with a style of dining more reliant on their participation.

Aucoin said he got the idea for the new course component from a yearly, buffet-style event, with wine pairings, called The Twelve Wines of Christmas, where food is presented or prepared in front of guests. It was such a hit with guests and other professors that he decided to integrate that style of dining into the course.

Chefs interact with the public more than they did a few decades ago, says Aucoin. “There’s a lot of foodies out there and they want to see the chef.”

The theme of the first buffet in mid-October was Italian cuisine. The students paced the room rearranging their food stations and whispering quietly while waiting for their guests. For most, it was the first time they would prepare meals in front of an audience.

Students get to work with high quality, fresh ingredients and have a certain level of autonomy in the buffet style serving.

Stephen Christie fills his pans with fresh ingredients for made-to-order pasta dishes for onlookers. Photo: Jessica Emin
Stephen Christie fills his pans with fresh ingredients for made-to-order pasta dishes for onlookers. Photo: Jessica Emin

“We need to be able to explain our food and tell the people what’s in it,” says student Stephen Christie, who created custom pasta dishes, such as shrimp linguine in fresh pesto garlic sauce, at the first buffet night.

Maxim Landreville-Rouseau, an aspiring chef studying at the college, says the buffet is different from the traditional style where you simply serve yourself and sit down. “In this case we’re going to get to see the satisfaction of our clientele.” He says interaction “is good because it boosts demeanour and morale” in the culinary students.

A first-time guest at the restaurant, Sacha Robert, says she enjoyed being able to take her time and talk to the chefs. “I really liked the risotto,” she says. “I’d never had that before, and anyway, them explaining it to me … makes me less hesitant to try it.”

Next semester will pose a new challenge to students. Instead of following their chef’s guidelines, they will create their own recipes and menus to present to the dining public on buffet night.

Chefs are no longer hidden in the back of the restaurant, Aucoin says. The new format of serving is “a good way of introducing our students a little more to the public than just cooking in the kitchen.”