The Restaurant School readies students for careers in the culinary industry.
A student sneezes. Professor Henry Piotrowski shouts, “Go wash your hands.”
In an upstairs classroom in Allison Mansion, tired students sit behind four long metal tables waiting for class to begin. They are wearing white coats and floppy chef hats.
The uniforms give the impression that they know what they’re doing, but many of them picked up a knife for the first time just six weeks ago, when they began their freshman year at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. The 18 students in Introduction to Culinary Arts are among the 458 hopeful chefs, bakers and hotel or restaurant managers working toward degrees just blocks from Penn’s campus.
Their schedules hardly resemble a Penn student’s typical day.
Today’s lesson is about tomato sauces, part of a unit on the five mother sauces — tomato, bechamel, veloute, espagnole and hollandaise. Variations of these sauces are used in the school’s four restaurants where students cook and serve the public, as well as throughout the culinary industry.
The three–hour class begins with attendance and a dress check. An appointed sous chef calls out names and makes sure uniforms are clean, that each woman’s hair is tucked into her cap and that each man’s beard is trimmed. A PowerPoint lists facts about tomato sauces and recipes.
Cooking begins with clanging as metal vessels are pulled from shelves and pattering as pots are filled with water. A metallic buzz pierces above the cacophony as two students sharpen their knives in tandem, chatting as blades graze against the metal sharpening rods. Onion skins crinkle as they are peeled back before knives thud gently against thick cutting boards.
Watching a student struggle, Piotrowski asks, “How did I teach you how to cut? Learn what you are doing in school.” The professor whispers, “This is what you get with freshmen.”
There are approximately 200 freshmen this year, the college’s largest class ever. Piotrowski, the director of culinary arts, believes the economy is the main source of the growth. People graduating from traditional academic institutions are unable to find jobs, so they figure having a skill will serve them.
According to Peggy Liberatoscioli, the school’s Vice President of Administrative Services, 85 percent of students who began their education in 2007 had jobs within 30 days of graduation, which for most was sometime in 2009.
The range of levels becomes clear when one student diced his onion before others filled pots with water. Another student has more difficulty; she is slow and awkward and larger chunks of onion remain on the cutting board when she is done.
Piotrowski can already tell that five won’t graduate.
By 9 a.m. onions are simmering in saucepans and tomatoes are being added to the mixture. One student focuses intensely on the contents of his pan, his body shaking as he shimmies the forming sauce over the gas burner and stirs it with a wooden spoon.
An hour later, students individually present their work to Piotrowski. He moves the food around on the plate with the back of a plastic spoon, and takes just one bite of each dish. He will later grade their performance for the day, and they will receive a letter grade at the end of the semester based on their daily performance, a midterm and quizzes.
Pastry Production class begins at 6 a.m. “I like to think of it as controlled chaos,” says Professor John Gallagher, surrounded by pastry arts majors. Everything the students make is sold in the campus pastry shop or served to restaurant patrons; it’s on the job training, without the danger of getting fired.
The students are divided into nine stations — breads, cookies, tarts, chocolates, cakes, restaurant, pantry, oven and finishing. They spend two weeks at each station over the course of one semester and visit each station twice.
Itia Hooper, a 19–year–old sophomore from Philadelphia, is working at the chocolate station. She commutes to campus each day, which can take her up to two hours on the bus.
Itia cuts a square in half and examines its middle. She takes a bite and makes a face, “Tastes like metal.” Itia enjoys this station but says humid days are not good for chocolate. She originally planned to study art at a traditional college, but her dream was always baking, so she decided to make a change. When she started designing cakes she realized that “this is an art too.”
For freshman Shayna Clary, 21, baking began as a relaxing hobby. Like many of her classmates Shayna hopes to one day own a bakery, hers specializing in wedding cakes. Karly Peifer, 18, also hopes to find a career in wedding cakes. Although Karly has not yet made a wedding cake, she has made baby shower cupcakes and sells pies at her church. Today, she is working in the finishing room cutting up strawberries and kiwis to put on top of torts and brushing them with apricot glaze so they shine.
Sharing the finishing station with Karly, Erika Johnson is filling cream puffs. As a standing electric mixer blends together heavy cream and powdered sugar to form whipped cream, she seems unsure of herself but says she is enjoying school. She likes that the school is “small and homey.” After tasting her whipped cream, Erika folds in more sugar with a plastic spatula. Content with its taste, she shovels the mixture into a pastry bag. Then, with the help of an older student, she pipes the cream into the puffs forming shaky but elegant spirals.
Once the professor approves her work, Erika brings her gold tray to the pastry shop. She places it on the top shelf of a display case with a sign identifying the product. Erika’s work will be sold for $2.50 a piece.
The cake station spends its morning making sheets of paper–thin cake. A giant metal bowl from an industrial sized electric mixer rests on a stool that has been turned upside down. Erin Dugan, 20, has removed the contents of her pockets so no pens or thermometers fall into the batter as she leans over to mix it with her hands.
Elbow deep in chocolate and eggs, Erin explains that she is vegan and dreams of opening a vegan, gluten–free bakeshop. A freshman in her third semester, Erin says it is tough to be a vegan in pastry school but she “came here to learn the fundamentals.” When baking vegan she replaces dairy milk with soy and almond milks and butter with vegetable margarine. She also uses a lot of silken tofu. Because Erin sees the goal of vegan baking as making foods that taste like the original, Erin always tastes what she bakes in class. She says her non–vegan parents can’t tell the difference.
In her six semesters she will pay almost $36,000 in tuition (not including lab fees, equipment and uniforms which vary in cost), so she wants to get as much as she can out of her education.
After six semesters, students earn an associate degree. Then a small handful stay on to earn bachelors degrees. Students don’t register for specific classes because all associate degree candidates in a given major take the same specific courses. In addition to pastry production, the college offers these students classes related to chocolate, wedding cakes and college success. Allison Mansion, the school’s main building at 4207 Walnut Street, contains the main culinary teaching facilities, four restaurants and a pastry shop, in addition to a library and computer labs. The center for hospitality studies is one block east at 41st and Walnut Streets and contains additional classrooms and a school store. Dorms are located across the street and next door to the mansion. Each school year has three 10–week semesters.
Erin completed half of an associate’s degree in English before starting at The Restaurant School, and stories of traditional educations left behind are common among the students. Zachary Kowalski, 18, however, always wanted to be a baker. Growing up, Zach loved making Christmas cookies with his mom. He came straight to Walnut Hill College from vocational high school in Pittsburgh. One of three males in the class, Zach knows that many people think baking is for girls, but says the only difference he sees between himself and his 32 female classmates is that he has to “reach up and get things off the top shelf.”
Jimmy Mercado, 18, is one of Zach’s roommates in the dorms. They live with James, the third boy in the class. Today Jimmy is making butter cream by stirring a mixture of egg whites, powdered sugar, vanilla, shortening and butter over heat. He keeps the liquid moving so the eggs don’t harden. Jimmy also went to a technical high school and had a job at a bakery. He chose Walnut Hill College because it is “only about” food. Nicole Dalessio, 18, also lives in the dorms. She says living with other students has made her experience feel more like what she expected a traditional college to be like, but thinks this is even better, because she is studying the same things as her roommates.
Only 160 students live in the dorms. Like many other Philadelphia natives, Veronica Figueroa, commutes from home, because she could not afford to live in the dorms. A sophomore, Veronica has enjoyed her experience less than most of her peers. She is interested in cakes specifically so finds making little tarts and pastries unfulfilling. She came to Walnut Hill College because she will graduate with a degree, rather than the certificate that some culinary schools offer, but would have liked to specialize more.
“Production is a trip,” exclaims Olivia Portelli, 20, an alumna of The Restaurant School. Olivia graduated in March with an associate degree in pastry arts, and she now works on Walnut Street at Penne Restaurant and Wine Bar making all their desserts and handmade pastas. Although “nobody wants to get up that early,” Olivia describes production class among her best college experiences. She explains that in this industry it is important to have a lot of tricks, and she never wanted to be a “one note” anyway. She also enjoyed being to be able to point to something on a pastry shop shelf and say “I made that,” but noted that it can be stressful to think about the public seeing your work.
After a long day of production and other classes, Olivia used to go to her brother, a 2010 Penn grad, Joe’s apartment to make dinner (The Restaurant School dorms don’t have kitchens).
She had less time on her hands when she began working at Penne in her sophomore year to fulfill the college’s internship requirement. Although she knows some people who struggled to find jobs, she doesn’t know anyone in her class who does not have a job now.
Olivia decided to go to culinary school because “All I could think about all day when I was in [high] school was what I was going to make to eat that night.” She went for pastries because she never skips dessert and likes the challenge, calling baking “the perfect mesh of art and science.”
Now that she is “a real person,” Olivia knows her passion for baking “truly is love” because she is willing to put up with the exhaustion, heat and injuries that come with working in a kitchen.
Average entry–level pay is only around $11 per hour for someone with a culinary degree. “In this field you are supposed to start from dirt,” explains Olivia.
EATING AT THE RESTAURANT SCHOOL:
All restaurants are open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30–10:00 p.m., and are located at 4027 Walnut St.
The Italian Trattoria: $13.95
The American Heartland: $21
The International Bistr:o $21
The Great Chefs: $35, $50 with wine pairing
All menus are prix–fixe. Reservations can be made on OpenTable.com
The Pastry Shop
Cakes, pies, tortes, croissants, scones, coffee, ready made omelettes
A coffee and a breakfast pastry cost approximately $3.25
Monday – Saturday 7:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.