By JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
The next generation of culinary experts seeking to evolve the culture of cuisine aren’t being groomed in Paris or New York City, they’re being educated in a career and technical high school in the town of Lincoln.
The Patriot Dining Room is a student-run restaurant within the walls of William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School, which provides lunch three days a week for school staff and the 64 students in the school’s culinary program, according to Chef Santos Nieves.
The seniors in the program develop weekly menus and operate within the kitchen and dining room as managers and chefs. They develop menus and plan meals every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday when school is in session, additionally deciding on a menu and production list for everything in the meal. The sophomores and juniors within the program are the workers within the dining room, providing support for the chefs and student teachers.
Within the kitchen at the Patriot Dining Room, students have free reign on what they’d like to see on the menu, provided it’s within budget. Every week at the dining room operates in a fairly similar manner – Mondays are for preparation, Tuesdays are for production, and meals are served Wednesday through Friday.
“We are a safety net,” Nieves said. “It’s a safe environment where you can make mistakes and learn.”
When he sees the students evolve from shy sophomores to confident seniors, Nieves says: “That’s the whole I reason I teach. The kids are able and capable to do anything possible.”
“To me, it’s rewarding seeing the kid who can’t hold a knife at first produce a menu and direct students,” he added. “It’s more about leadership. We can’t teach everything about food, just the basics, but they’re the leaders.”
“They’re most surprised by the outcome once they get their hands on it. Their perspectives change. We’ve served rabbit and we’ve seen them lick the plates clean, they’ll fight for the scallops,” he said with a laugh, noting how the students’ palates change over their years in the program. “Their perception of food comes from their environment. They know chicken nuggets and burgers when they get here, but they leave way broader.”
The dining room on Friday afternoon was unlike any school cafeteria you could imagine, with students serving chicken and white bean soup, mozzarella sticks with house-made marinara sauce, barbecue braised beef with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed mixed vegetables, and shrimp and broccoli pasta in a creamy parmesan sauce.
The Patriot Dining Room recently underwent a significant renovation, as the space – which was built in 1991 with “early 80s” decor – now features a chic, modern look with new tables and flooring.
“They love it,” Nieves said of the updated dining room. “They were really blown away when they came in.”
Showcasing just how successful the program has been in recent years, the students will once again represent Rhode Island at the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C. on May 8 through 10. The invitational is a competition focused on restaurant management and culinary arts for secondary school students across the country.
Groups of up to five students from each school have to develop a menu and prepare it within an hour with no electricity or running water. Instead, all they have are two burners and all the food and equipment they can provide.
Davies Tech has represented Rhode Island six times over the seven years they’ve participated in the competition and each year they’ve progressed up the national rankings, finishing as high as eighth place out of 43 teams at nationals in 2018.
“That’s like my little baby here,” Nieves said. “What’s important is the commitment of the students to this. Our seniors put in 170 after-school hours just practicing.”
Describing the competition itself as “a symphony of pots and pans and cooking,” Nieves said the challenge is “very reflective of how you run a kitchen and a business. It’s like what the world of a restaurant should be. To me, it elevates the program.”
Victoria Carrion of Pawtucket and twin sisters Britney and Ashley Fernandez of North Providence are among the seniors in the school’s culinary program who’ll be going to Washington, D.C. in May for the national competition.
All three said their interest in the culinary arts began early in their childhood. Carrion said she’s “always had a passion for baking” and that she was raised cooking alongside her father. The Fernandez sisters echoed the sentiment, explaining that most of their family members are chefs.
“You can say it runs in the bloodline,” Britney Fernandez said.
Once in the program at Davies, however, they learned how cooking in a professional environment is much different than baking or preparing food at home.
“I was learning to communicate with customers. I was very hot-tempered and it was challenging to control my anger when they put up a fight,” Britney said, reminiscing on her earlier days in the program. “Sometimes, the customer is right. I’ve learned to be more calm and mellow.”
Carrion said it was the science that goes into food preparation that she found most fascinating.
“I’m kind of a science geek … I feel like I’ve grown quite a bit,” she said.
Ashley Fernandez said she’s learned patience through the program, but unlike her sister, her patience was initially tested by the food itself, not the customers.
“When you’re plating an appetizer, it’s very difficult. I would get fed up,” she said. “I learned to do other ideas, I combined them and it turned out pretty good.”
All three are beyond excited for the national competition, with Carrion saying she learned from last year’s invitational how to handle the stress and pressure and channel it into a sense of excitement.
Ashley Fernandez followed up by saying that she watched as her twin sister competed last year, but this year they get to team up.
Britney Fernandez added: “It’s definitely a new experience. I get to learn and see what their food is like and gain new experience at the competition. It’s stressful but I’m definitely excited to see the other teams’ plates and menus.”
For more information on the Patriot Dining Room, contact marketing and communications specialist Jax Adele at 401-728-1500, ext. 237.
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette