Fitch students learn culinary lessons in the community

Mystic — Sous-chef Julian Elfedayni told Robert E. Fitch High School culinary arts students Monday that feeding 1,000 people a day at the Engine Room restaurant is all about working together and communicating.

"It’s a big team effort," he said to the two dozen students who took a field trip to the Engine Room restaurant where he works.

The trip is part of a collaborative program between the high school's expanded culinary program and local restaurants. There are a series of field trips to other restaurants, as well as lectures and cooking demonstrations at the high school. The goal is to help the students learn more about jobs in the food industry and expose them to the many work opportunities that exist in the community, said teacher Justine Fugere, who oversees the culinary program with Scott Post. 

"The businesses are helping us mentor our students regarding interviewing, work ethic, and existing opportunities for employment," Fugere said.

At the Engine Room, Elfedayni talked to students about how the farm-to-table establishment uses local, sustainable foods; the skills it takes to work at a restaurant; the qualities the business is looking for in employees, and the training and tools they would receive on the job. He talked to them about how a cut of beef was 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat to provide moisture and flavor.

The students then ate burgers, made of grass-fed beef from North Stonington's Beriah Lewis Farm, with tomato jam, everything-flavored cream cheese, and crispy onions on top. The students plan to recreate the burger in their next class using beef donated by Fugere's family farm in Mystic.

Fitch High School senior Helen Berganza, 17, who started working as a hostess and buser at Engine Room in February and helped set up Monday's field trip, said the high school's culinary program taught her different techniques and healthy ways to cook dishes.

"I think it's really important to learn how to cook and have different ways to cook things," she said.

Berganza said the skills she's learning at the restaurant — how to take care of people and ensure they are getting good service and how to be on her feet in a fast-paced environment — are some of the same skills she will need in her future plans to be a nurse.

As part of the partnership with local businesses, students saw how to make ice cream at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream; made Lumpia, a Filipino egg roll with the owner of Raymond's Pinoy Kusina in Groton; made pizza with the owner of Bridge Market in Groton; and toured kitchens during a Mohegan Sun field trip hosted by Assistant General Manager Jeff Hamilton and Chef Lynn Mansel. Johnson and Wales University and Chef Cam Greer from CAKE by Franck at Foxwoods provided cooking demonstrations at the high school. Jealous Monk and The Oyster Club are among other community partners.

Fugere said all the community partners are donating their time, and the students are not paying anything to go on the field trips.

The culinary program plans to continue to partner with local businesses each year, she said.

The trips and the culinary program help prepare students for work and also offer them exposure to restaurants and food combinations they had never tried before, such as blue cheese and avocado when they made Cobb salads, she added.

The high school's culinary program provides students with hands-on learning she said. The program offers introductory classes for any student who wants to learn how to cook, as well as classes that teach advanced cooking techniques and knife skills and focus on commercial cooking, Fugere said. Starting next year, the advanced classes will offer ServSafe certification, which trains students to safely prepare food.  

Students learn every aspect of the restaurant business, including planning, pricing the menu and  cooking and serving food at the high school's student run-restaurant, the Falcon Café. She said the culinary program is committed to improving the restaurant in future years, including by seeking grants.

Kyle Egan, 17, a senior at Fitch High School who was introduced to cooking by his father who is an executive chef, said he plans to join the U.S. Coast Guard after graduation to become a culinary specialist and currently works at the Jealous Monk.

He said field trips, such as Monday's visit to Engine Room, give him ideas about different aspects of restaurants and how to make different dishes.

Egan said he loves cooking, because there are so many ways to prepare food, for example pork, from sautéing, braising or smoking it, customizing it depending on the season and adding different spices.

"I love being able to have so many ideas for different types of foods," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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