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Culinary Students Get Real-Life Experience, You Get Great Food

Leeward Community College’s two eateries—The Pearl and Uluwehi Café—serve up surprisingly refined dishes on a student budget.


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The students at Leeward Community College’s Culinary 223: Contemporary Cuisines course prepare the dishes that are served at The Pearl, a fine-dining restaurant on campus.
PHotos: Catherine TOth Fox

 

A handful of students, dressed as servers in long-sleeved black shirts and neon-colored neckties, stand over a stainless-steel table in the kitchen poised with plastic forks.

 

As each dish is served—steamed Manila clams with a spicy tom yum broth, slow-cooked corned beef with coconut soubise (creamy onion sauce) and sweet potato mash—they dive in, making comments about the preparation, presentation and flavors.

 

These students are part of a culinary-arts class where they serve as cooks and servers at The Pearl, an 80-seat restaurant on the campus of Leeward Community College. This fine-dining eatery, with expansive views of Pearl Harbor’s West Lochs and the Wai‘anae mountain range, features a lunch menu with such dishes as whipped local goat cheese puffs with fresh beets and arugula; seared ‘ahi with pickled ginger, Asian shrimp risotto and a wasabi-butter sauce; and cider-brined pork medallions with a minted green-apple compote and Byron potatoes. Entrées here cost $20 or less.

 

AT THE PEARL, STUDENTS SERVED THIS SEARED ‘AHI WITH PICKLED GINGER, ASIAN SHRIMP RISOTTO—DONE PERFECTLY—WITH A WASABI-BUTTER SAUCE ($17).

 

Inside the kitchen, the students prepare this appetizer for The Pearl: whipped local goat cheese from Sweet Land Farm piped into a profiterole and paired with fresh red and golden beets and arugula ($6).

 

Here’s how it works: Students in Culinary 223: Contemporary Cuisines cook the dishes here for lunch service three days a week under the guidance of chef instructor Ian Riseley, who has worked at the Halekūlani and Ritz-Carlton at Mauna Lani. The students in Culinary 160: Dining Room Management, led by chef instructor Michael Scully, do the serving. Both classes are part of an eight-week module, giving each student the opportunity to work in both the kitchen and dining room.

 

“The program does a really good job giving students a realistic view of what it’s like in the industry,” says Tommylynn Benavente, professor in the culinary arts program and chair of the professional arts and technology division at LCC.

 

A student works on a dish in the 3,600-square-foot Fundamentals Kitchen, which grew from 900 square feet before renovations were made about 10 years ago.

 

Another student prepares garlic bread served at Ala‘ike Grill, a pop-up run by the students in Culinary 125: Fundamentals of Cookery II. This kitchen also serves as the bakeshop lab where students learn to prepare various baked goods such as cakes, pies, croissants and rolls, many of which are served at The Pearl.

 

The culinary arts program at LCC is the oldest in the state and started soon after the college opened in 1968. About 170 students are currently enrolled in the program, which offers both hands-on instruction and classroom work that results in an associate degree. More than $6 million has been invested in the facilities here, which include four practical teaching kitchens and major renovations to its fine-dining restaurant seven years ago. The Fundamentals Lab kitchen sprawls over 3,600 square feet—almost twice the size it was before—with individual cooking stations and prep areas. The 2,200-square-foot Contemporary Cuisines kitchen, where the dishes for The Pearl are prepared, features a European-style cooking line (where workspaces are back-to-back.) Students enrolled in LCC’s program get externships in restaurants such as Alan Wong’s, Roy’s Restaurant, MW Restaurant, Tango Contemporary Café, 3660 on the Rise, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar and The Pig & The Lady. At least half of them get offered jobs at their externship sites.

 

“Everybody knows KCC (Kapi‘olani Community College) because they’re so good at putting themselves out there,” Benavente says. “We’re the more bashful ones.”

 

The campus is worth visiting for lunch, with a wide selection of options served at both The Pearl and Uluwehi Café, a more casual cafeteria located on the first floor of the campus center. On a recent visit, the students enrolled in Culinary 125: Fundamentals of Cookery II were learning how to properly prepare linguine from chef instructor Chris Garnier, who recently left Roy’s Hawai‘i Kai to work here.

 

Uluwehi Café, which is open daily for breakfast and lunch, offers the usual college cafeteria fare of sandwiches, burgers and salads. But, three days a week, the culinary students run a pop-up inside the cafeteria called the Ala‘ike Grill, where they serve an elevated menu that seems heavily influenced by Garnier’s résumé: kālua pork hash Benedict, pan-crisped Island fish tacos, pan-fried salt-and-pepper pork chops, Asian-braised pork belly loco moco and a butter ramen using house-made dashi and pork belly.

 

This kālua pork hash Benedict ($6) is one of several dishes served at the Ala‘ike Grill on campus and prepared by students in Culinary 125: Fundamentals of Cookery II.

 

This is the cider-brined pork medallions ($16) served at The Pearl with a minted green-apple compote, whole-grain mustard sauce and Byron potatoes.

 

The lavosh and bread rolls served at The Pearl are made by students in Culinary 150: Fundamentals of Baking.

 

There’s a lot of crossover, too. Students in Culinary 150: Fundamentals of Baking bake breads and lavosh used at The Pearl. And all the pickled veggies, corned beef, pastrami, bacon and smoked salmon that are used at both eateries are made by students taking garde manger classes. (Garde manger is French for “keeper of the food.”)

 

“We have a lot going on here,” Benavente says.

 

The Pearl doesn’t accept tips, but any donations given are used to fund a class lunch at a high-end restaurant at the end of the semester. Last semester they went to 53 By the Sea. For many of these students, it’s their first upscale-dining experience.

 

“It’s a very rewarding job,” Benavente says. “It’s tough, no doubt, but it’s very rewarding.”

 

Leeward Community College is hosting its annual fundraiser, L‘ulu, from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at its Pearl City campus. Culinary students will be cooking alongside more than a dozen notable chefs including Roy Yamaguchi, Andrew Le (The Pig & The Lady), and Michelle and Wade Ueoka (MW Restaurant). The event raises money for the college’s culinary arts program. Cost is $100 per person through April 29, $125 from May 1. 455-0300, 455-0298, www.leeward.hawaii.edu/culn

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

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