Fine, affordable dining at culinary schools

February 15, 2012 12:12:31 PM PST
Culinary students are not only learning how to cook at Le Cordon Bleu on the city's Near North Side, but also how to run a restaurant.Culinary students are not only learning how to cook at Le Cordon Bleu on the city's Near North Side, but also how to run a restaurant.

Since they opened, both the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago's Loop and Kendall College near Goose Island have had restaurants open to the public, giving the seniors a chance to cook and wait tables in final preparation for going off into the real world. They're not alone. Two additional cooking schools -- Le Cordon Bleu and College of DuPage -- also offer this hands-on restaurant experience, which is a real plus to both the employees and the guests.

Technique looks like any other neighborhood restaurant on a tight budget, but it is located within the Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School on the Near North Side. Diners here pay just $10 for a three course lunch or dinner and $15 for a four-course dinner.

"We do all kinds of stuff. Mostly new American. So, you know between breakfast, lunch and dinner we're doing sandwiches, burgers. We're also doing fish; different entrees. There's a few ethnic dishes as well," said Camille Parker of Le Cordon Bleu.

The students are all in the final semester of their studies. They work on sauteeing salmon, then plating it with pureed peas, asparagus and potatoes or just assembling a simple caprese salad. Ahi tuna is presented in a nicoise salad, along with eggs, French green beans and olives. Desserts are typically simple - like this chocolate mousse and Viennese sponge cake - but you have to remember that these chefs are still learning their trade.

"If something is not quite as perfect as your fine dining restaurant right down the street; which you are paying, you know, 30 bucks or 40 bucks a plate for; you're going to cut them a little slack," Parker said.

In West Suburban Glen Ellyn, a stunning new Culinary and Hospitality wing at the College of DuPage has a small hotel and two distinctive restaurants that students get to cook for.

"Wheat Cafe and that restaurant is regional American. And the students in there are mid-level cooking if you will. And the students are learning their skills and their just you know, we got regional American food so they're really trying to hone their skills for the first time," said Chris Thielman, one of the instructors at the College of DuPage.

Pan-roasted pork chops with caramelized onions and a corn succotash gives students a challenge, but so does the grilled snapper with black beans and a citrus salad. Next door, the more upscale Waterleaf is where the boundaries are pushed: beautifully prepared salmon with black rice; seared whitefish with pucks of cooked tomato and eggplant. Like the real world they're about to enter, students work both the front and back-of-the-house.

"We try to give them real world experience, so that when they leave us they're very very comfortable out working in bake shop, working in a restaurant, working in a hotel. Because our job is to give them skills so they can be successful for the rest of their life," Thielman said.

And a quick note: at Waterleaf, the students only cook two nights per week. The rest of the time, it's a regular restaurant, headed by a professional chef. Two other cooking schools with restaurants include Washburne's program at the South Shore Cultural Center, called The Parrot Cage and Robert Morris' culinary program has a restaurant in Oak Park.

List of Chicago Culinary Schools Restaurants

Technique at Le Cordon Bleu
361 West Chestnut
(312) 873-2032
Lunch: Monday - Thursday: 11:00am - 1:30pm Dinner: Monday - Thursday: 6:00pm - 8:00pm
$10 for three-course lunch or dinner; $15 for four-course dinner

Waterleaf at College of Dupage
425 Fawell Blvd
CHC Building
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
(630) 942-6881
Lunch: Monday Tuesday Thursday & Friday 11:30-2:00 p.m.; Saturday Lunch 11:30-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday Thursday Friday 5:00-8:30 Sunday Brunch 11:00am - 2:30 p.m.; Sunday Dinner 4:30-8:30
Students cook at Waterleaf on Tues and Wed. evenings ONLY

Wheat Cafe
425 Fawell Blvd, CHC Bldg.
CHC Bldg
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
(630) 942-2284
Lunch: Wednesday and Friday: 11:15 am - 1:00 pm

Art Institute of Chicago
Back Stage Bistro
180 North Wabash Avenue

Washburne Culinary
The Parrot Cage at S. Shore Cultural Center
7059 S. Shore Drive

Kendall College Dining Room
900 N.North Branch Street

Robert Morris Culinary School
Eyrie Location
128 N. Oak Park Avenue
Oak Park, IL