Gas jets crackle into hot flames on the stoves as high school students fill the kitchen, chopping ingredients, tossing food into pans and assembling plates for service. It’s not Teen Top Chef — it’s the Broadmoor Bistro.
High school students who study culinary arts and commercial baking at the Broadmoor Technical Center in the Shawnee Mission School District make up the staff of the Broadmoor Bistro, a restaurant inside the school building that opens for dinner almost every Wednesday during the school year.
It’s about 4 p.m., and the Bistro students have returned to the school at 6701 W. 83rd St. in Overland Park to prepare their ingredients for the busy night ahead of them. Warning calls of “knife” ring throughout the kitchen as students carry the sharp implements to various cutting boards.
Others take soup stock and other ingredients made earlier out of the freezers and start defrosting them in huge pots.
Still another pot bubbles away with 20 pounds of butter, as students privately joke about which of them would ever drink it all on a dare. Once it’s melted, a student will skim the top off to make it clarified butter. The veal breast has already been braised in a persimmon demi-glace and juniper berries for six hours.
Each student has his or her responsibility, and they all take turns on different nights doing the various tasks that must happen in the restaurant.
Commercial baking student Erin Coleman cringes slightly as she reaches into a bucket of frozen rhubarb and blackberries to start preparations for the rhubarb crumble.
None of it is particularly glamorous, whether it’s sweating in front of a flaming pizza oven to make the flatbread, arranging pomegranate seeds just so on a plate, washing the many pots and pans the kitchen uses or serving the eager diners their meals.
To make all this happen, teamwork is essential, just as it would be in a professional restaurant.
Their teacher, Bob Brassard, who has more than 30 years of experience as a chef, is known to his students as “Chef Bob.” He likens being a student worker at the Broadmoor Bistro to being on a varsity sports team.
“What we try to do here is explain to the students that if everybody does what they’re supposed to do, like on a football team, then in the end, it all should be excellent,” Brassard said.
For student Corey West, that’s the most important lesson he’s learned from the program.
“You have to learn to work with people no matter what your differences are. It’s a team effort. There are no ‘stars,’ ” Corey said.
At Broadmoor, students learn more than how to make a sauce or whip the perfect meringue.
“We really do everything for our restaurant that commercial restaurants do, from prepping the items to serving the guests and even taking inventory on what we have and need,” said student India Borchardt.
Sometimes it’s hard. On a recent restaurant night, the Bistro student workers had to make do without seven flu-stricken classmates — about a fourth of the staff. That means everyone else has to double up duties, and more responsibility piles on each student’s shoulders.
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Of the many students from the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts who take cooking-related classes at Broadmoor Technical Center, all are invited to apply to be part of the Broadmoor Bistro staff, but only about 30 move up to the big leagues of the Bistro each year. Even then, some drop out of the restaurant program during the year.
The Olathe School District also has a culinary program with a restaurant, called Les Arts Culinaires.
As part of the application process for the Broadmoor Bistro, students do a self-evaluation of their cooking work, which Brassard compares with an evaluation from one of their teachers to see if it’s realistic.
“The program was designed to enable the student to get industry experience. The most important aspect of that is the attitude and whether they can be trained, as in any job,” Brassard said.
Almost every Wednesday night, the students serve members of the public who have paid $30 to taste their work.
They change the menu several times a year, trying to keep the fare seasonally appropriate. From apple-gouda roasted chicken to persimmon and white chocolate bread pudding, the items on each menu are based on recipes created by the students.
About four years ago, the school district invested $1.6 million to redo the kitchen and dining facilities the students use for classes and for the Bistro’s restaurant nights. The industrial-sized kitchen includes a wood-fired pizza oven and a pastry preparation area.
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It’s 5 p.m. Diners will arrive at 5:30 p.m., but right now, it’s time for the family meal that the restaurant staff eats together. This time, it’s apple cider-brined pork, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
As the students line up to fill their plates buffet-style, Brassard reminds the students to eat their greens.
When Brassard walks in to talk about the night ahead of them, he’s all business.
“The customer doesn’t want to hear we’re shorthanded. … It’s up to you to make it a memorable night on the positive side, not the negative side,” he says as they eat. “All of you need to step up your game. … No arguing, no finger-pointing. If (the plate) doesn’t look right, don’t take it out.”
It’s almost time for service. Student Taylor Hindman slides crispy cannoli shells off their molds. He’ll pipe a horseradish and potato mixture inside each one to serve with the pavé of cod once they’ve cooled.
Nearby, a tray of herbs still growing in flats of dirt sits on the counter. Later, student Jenna Miller will carefully cut them to help out fellow students who must assemble each plate of the autumn green salad and the farro and roasted squash salad as if it’s a piece of artwork.
She says it could be worse — at least she doesn’t have to slice the green onions, a personal peeve of hers. Unfortunately for Sarah Alley, that’s her job tonight. It’s precision work, and when a nearby classmate doesn’t slice the onions thin enough, instructor chef Justin Hoffman steps in to demonstrate the proper technique.
Everything seems to be on course, despite their missing classmates. One of the important lessons the restaurant program teaches students is what to do when things go wrong in the kitchen.
“I’ve learned so many techniques that I never even knew about. I’ve learned how to fix things in certain situations instead of having to throw something out and start new,” said student Elisa Gentry.
When it comes down to learning, the thing that makes the Bistro different from regular class time is having people there who will be eating their creations but who aren’t teachers or fellow students.
“The guest is the medium for education, because if we don’t have a guest coming and sitting in the seat, then the student isn’t getting real-life experience, because everything is controlled,” Brassard said.
At 5:30 p.m., the first diners, a group of four women, arrive. India is in charge tonight, and she calls out each of their orders to the kitchen, and everyone in the kitchen repeats it back.
Outside in the dining room, everything is cool and serene, and calm music plays in the background. The tables are covered in crisp white tablecloths, and the students who aren’t cooking tonight see to the diners’ needs as waiters and hosts.
Inside, the kitchen is hot, blistering by some of the gas stoves, and smells of different dishes mingle as pots, pans and plates clatter. Three plates of fig-braised pork cheeks sit at the window under the warming lights, ready to go out. Hoffman will taste each batch before it’s served to make sure it’s up to the bistro’s high standards.
Corey fishes out the plastic packs of prepared pork from a hot pot of water, a method called sous-vide, which brings meat to the right temperature so the meat is cooked evenly, without searing it. Once it’s finished, he’ll combine it with mushrooms and herbs in a flame-kissed pan for the pork cheek appetizer.
Tonight, because they’re short-handed by seven students, Corey also is making braised rabbit, and focusing on both can be difficult.
When he has some difficulty keeping an eye on both dishes as they bubble and simmer on different stoves, Hoffman calls him out on it, urging him to stay on top of both stations.
Brassard was impressed with how Corey handled that stressful moment.
“Corey rose to the challenge and at the end of the night, he knew he was depended upon to carry the load,” Brassard said. “It definitely helps build the self-confidence, even though he struggled.”
Out in the dining room, Marian Light of Kansas City was eating the pork cheeks and then the braised rabbit. Despite the overloaded kitchen, she didn’t notice any problems.
“I think it’s very comparable to a great (professional) restaurant in Kansas City,” said Light, who joins her husband, Fred, at the Bistro at least four times a year.
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Besides an authentic taste of a life spent in the kitchen, the bistro also gives students opportunities to meet people who are already successful in the industry. At a charity benefit last semester, students made desserts for hundreds of people. By the end of the night, all 1,600 servings they had made were gone.
One student helped Hotel Raphael chef Charles d’Ablaing with his work at the event, and by the end of the night, d’Ablaing had offered the student a job.
Other students have gone on to work at local restaurants such as Bluestem. Broadmoor graduates have worked as chef de cuisine, sous chefs and line cooks there. Others have gone on to work at Port Fonda, Room 39, the American Restaurant, Julian and other Kansas City spots.
Brassard has been teaching at Broadmoor for 10 years, and he’s seen many of his students go on to success in the restaurant industry. Hoffman is a graduate of the program, which allows him to see both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s view when teaching.
Jonathon Dallen was a Broadmoor student during Brassard’s first year of teaching. Several years ago, he owned and operated his own restaurant, Taste, in downtown Overland Park, where Hoffman was the general manager and executive chef. Dallen also has worked all over the world on private yachts and planes as a personal chef.
“By the time I was 25 years old, I had pretty much done just about every position you could have in the culinary world,” Dallen said. “(Broadmoor) really prepares you for college. … When you mix experience in the Bistro with education, you gain something you would only get in the field.”
Dallen was the first student to really go after the scholarship opportunities available to Broadmoor students, Brassard said. Dallen estimates he won $200,000 in scholarship money to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta.
One of the competitions Broadmoor students regularly go to is the SkillsUSA Championships held at Bartle Hall in Kansas City each summer.
For this competition, commercial baking students have to produce six different products and show off their decorating techniques, while culinary arts competitors cook up a four-course meal encompassing both hot and cold dishes. Both groups are judged not only on their final products but also on the techniques they use along the way.
Broadmoor’s program has produced more than 60 national finalists, many placing in the top three spots in national and regional competitions, earning oodles of scholarship money, Brassard said.
When Mark Majewski graduated last year, he left with $300,000 in scholarship money from placing at nine culinary arts competitions over three years. The life focus he found at Broadmoor was the envy of his friends.
“They were actually a little bit jealous of the fact that I knew … what I wanted out my education. What I told them was you just have to want to find your passion and once you do, you’ll know you have to take advantage of it,” said Majewski, who will be attending Le Cordon Bleu College.
“I knew that Broadmoor was unique. It helped me grow not only as a culinarian but also as a person through responsibility, work ethic and maturity.”
It helps that Brassard is so accomplished in his own right. Just this week, he was named chef of the year for 2012 by the Kansas City Chef’s Association. The veteran chef also was named Culinary Educator of the Year in 2008 by Foodservice Educators Network International. (Visit joco913.com for a profile of Brassard.)
Another part of the program is the James Beard Chef Foundation feature, which brings professional nationally recognized chefs into the Bistro’s kitchen to cook with and teach the students. This culminates in a special restaurant night.
Although he has come back to Broadmoor many times to share his experience with students, in October, Dallen went back to the Broadmoor kitchen as one of these successful chefs for Broadmoor’s October homecoming dinner.
Dallen urges students to “take advantage of every opportunity,” he said. “They have every tool that they need right in front of them, with Bob and Justin and the school, and they should use it to their advantage.”
Maddi Orman, who graduated last year, agrees with Dallen. This year, she’s applying what she learned at Broadmoor as a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“Broadmoor is a great school, and it is set up where if you work hard, it will pay off. You will learn the most, do the best in competitions, get in the top schools and receive the most scholarships — but if you don’t put in the effort and take responsibility for your work, it won’t be handed to you,” Orman said.
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At six o’clock, seven tables are full, and the orders are flying back to the kitchen fast. Diners will keep coming in until 7:15 p.m., and the students will keep going until the last guest finishes.
It’s a flurry of activity for all involved, whether they’re cooking the food, washing up the many dishes or serving the diners. After the last diners give their orders, things start to slow down, as each production line finishes for the night.
But even when the last dish is scrubbed and the dining room is empty, students will stay to check the kitchen’s inventory before they go, review comment cards from the guests and talk about how they think the evening went and what they would change.
Most nights, it’s pretty good. Diners occasionally send items like soup back to be reheated, but overall, the customers like what they get at the Bistro.
“I describe it as excellent. It’s an experience you don’t really get anywhere else in Kansas City,” Marian Light says.
Tonight, they all breathe a sigh of relief as they think about the meals they dished out with a smaller-than-usual staff.
Tomorrow, it’s back to textbooks, classes and of course, the kitchen.