Lunch With Learning

Pima Community College serves up a gourmet lunch at a restaurant operated by its culinary students.

If you didn't know better, you could walk right into the Manning House's Pima Community College School of Culinary Arts restaurant and not realize that you are actually dining in what amounts to a classroom--at least at first.

The décor is very upscale--plush green carpet marked with green flowers complement the pastel-colored wallpaper--and everyone on the restaurant staff wears a white chef's coat. The food options are certainly indicative of a high-class establishment: The four-course meal ($20) on a recent visit started with a Basque pepper-cream soup and a salad before moving on to a steak with potatoes and vegetables, ending with crème brulee or truffles for dessert.

But as you dine--despite the fact that the food is indeed delicious--you may start getting hints that this is not a normal restaurant. Your soft-spoken server may seem a bit nervous. There's a strong possibility that certain menu items may be unavailable (such as the vichyssiose soup on that recent visit) for unknown reasons. And the menus are embossed with the name of a different restaurant, Hugo O'Conor's, that once occupied the space.

That's the PCC's School of Culinary Arts restaurant in a nutshell.

Operated by Chef James Botwright and Chef Ashley Moore, the restaurant is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the school semester from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Its staff consists of 32 second-semester students in the school's one-year culinary certificate program. Under the chefs' supervision, the students do basically everything--moving from the hot line to pastry and bakery to the cold kitchen to dining room service. Each week features a different theme, and an occasional celebrity chef spends time with the students.

"We're basically here so you can get your foot in the door and experience what a job in the culinary arts field might be like," says Botwright, whose resume includes stints at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco and the Westgate Hotel in San Diego.

This is the first semester that PCC has operated the restaurant, Botwright says, and so far, he's happy with how things have gone.

"It's continuously gotten better," he says. "But we've had our fiascoes."

Such as the one involving the vichyssoise soup on the aforementioned recent visit there (made by Weekly senior staffer Jim Nintzel and me). It turns out that a bag of seasonings placed in the potato-and-leek cold soup ruptured, flooding the soup with an abundance of clove and nutmeg. Botwright says the student attempted to save the soup by straining out the excess spices, but it didn't get the soup up to par. Hence, it was unavailable.

That can lead to a limited menu--only one soup and one salad were offered during the visit made by Jim and me, and only two entrées--the steak and a fish--were offered by our server, Felicia Cota. (After the meal, we learned there was also a vegetarian entrée available; Botwright says he always tries to offer a non-meat dish.)

"It's a learning environment," says Botwright. "But there's a level of excellence we try to have the students achieve."

And the food is indeed excellent. Our pepper-cream soup was fantastic--Jim described it (and he meant this as a big compliment) as tasting like "liquefied French fries." The salad--mixed greens with carrots, walnuts, apples, tangerines, squash, onions and a citrus vinaigrette dressing--was flawless, and the steaks were well-prepared, although the meat was a bit fatty. The desserts were wonderful as well; my only complaint about my crème brulee was that I wanted more.

The students in the program we chatted with say they are benefiting a great deal from the experience.

"I enjoy seeing all the different cuisines we're having now," says Cota, our tentative yet competent server. (She had never worked as a server before, explaining her hesitance.) "It's a great experience. I started out doing cake decorating, and that's what got me into the program."

Another student, Jim Wigley, entered the program with much more experience. He says he once owned a restaurant, and joined PCC's program after moving to Arizona following a divorce to live near his sister. But he, too, says he is picking up new knowledge.

"It's given me an all-around feel for the industry," he says. "Chef Botwright is very precise about what he wants done. There's a lot to ingest, and it's a challenge to ingest it."

Botwright says that the students in the program will be able to use their one-year certificate to get entry-level jobs in the culinary world. However, many of the students--Cota and Wigley included--say they plan on staying in culinary school or food science school to earn an associate's degree, if not a higher degree.

But in the meantime, the students are learning by doing--and this learning includes everything from how to present a meal on a plate to the profession's culture and unwritten rules, such remembering to call the head chef "chef" instead of "sir."

"It's a military unit," says Moore. "With chef hats."

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