Feeding People: Ernest’s Dining Room

What looks like a very nice dining room is actually a classroom where NAIT culinary arts students learn the ropes both back and front of house.

“We are licenced for 160 guests,” says Samantha Wall, culinary instructor and dining room manager. “We offer contemporary classic cuisine à la carte Monday to Thursday throughout the school year. In practical terms, it means we reopen the restaurant four times per year.

“Second year culinary students work in the dining room for 24 days. They jump right in — it’s baptism by fire. We try to get them comfortable through mock service but there is nothing like facing their first few tables.

“Their day starts at 9:15 with theory, such as etiquette. Then to the kitchen for pre-service, tasting the specials, then back to the dining room to set and stock. Doors open at 11:30. After service, they’ll have one more theory class.”

Essentially, Ernest’s is a 160-seat gastronomy lab. While some of their contemporaries are out front learning to balance plates and diner’s requests, fellow students are learning every section of the restaurant kitchen. NAIT’s program covers contemporary (main course hot), cold buffet (garde manger) and patisserie.

Everyday, à la carte service teaches students the daily ins and outs of running a restaurant while creating an excellent experience for guests. The Friday buffet is where students really get a chance to perform.

“The buffet is our student showcase. Each student dreams up what they are going to prepare, goes to their instructors with a plan, then executes the dishes. Friday buffet is spectacular.

“We want cooks to learn to talk with guests through working the interactive stations, where they could be searing lamb chops, flambéeing shrimp, carving stuffed pork loin or making pasta.

“Our students wanted to work with more local suppliers. They said they wanted know ‘what’s close to me and how can we be more sustainable?’ We use beef from Spring Creek Ranch, lamb from Tangle Ridge, duck from Four Whistle Farm. Our walleye/pickerel is from northern Alberta and our cheese is from the Cheesiry. Our president Glen Feltham says he ‘wants to support Alberta because Alberta supports us.’”

“Any given Friday from patisserie: chocolate truffles, carrot cake, linzer torte, pumpkin spice cake, grandmothers‘ recipes, chiffon cakes, ice cream bombe, mango, passion fruit and vanilla bean ice cream, tarts, and fresh fruit.

“People used to say they couldn’t come because parking was impossible. Now we have complementary parking passes in Lot C, and three times more metered parking on both sides of the street with 12 reserved for lunch every day.“

The experience pays off. The youngest Culinary Team Alberta to date won a gold medal and finished second overall in the regional competition at the IKA World Culinary Olympics held in October in Erfurt, Germany. The four chef members and the pastry chef had only completed their culinary schooling within the last year. The World Culinary Olympics was their first international competition. Team members Myles Fedun, pastry chef Meaghan Koop, and Peter Keith are NAIT grads.