Albany Technical College Culinary Arts program chair and executive chef Todd White sautes bell peppers, matchstick carrots and haricot verts to serve with Sesame-encrusted salmon. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)
Albany Tech Creative Cuisine
Albany Technical College's Titans Culinary Cuisine Restaurant serves gourmet meals every Thursday, prepared by students at the college. Executive Chef Todd White, chair of the Culinary Arts Department at Albany Tech, demonstrates how the students prepare entrees. The weekly restaurant is an inexpensive exploration of fine dining not otherwise found in Albany, but it does require reservations.
ALBANY — It’s not every day that a person can get an upscale, gourmet meal in Albany. It’s an even rarer occasion when such a meal can be purchased for $8. Furthermore, it would be unexpected to find a meal like that prepared by students at a technical college.
But that’s the case every Thursday at Titans Culinary Cuisine Restaurant at Albany Technical College.
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The restaurant, completely run by Albany Tech culinary arts students, is not only a great way to expose area residents to haute cuisine, but it’s also a way to give students some real world restaurant experience.
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It’s that kind of experience that Culinary Arts Department Chair and Executive Chef Todd White wants students to have when they enter the work force.
“I talk to restaurant owners and the biggest thing they tell me is they need employees who know how to work in a kitchen,” White said. “They don’t want to have to retrain them when they get there. They want them to go straight to work.
“We want the students who leave here to be able to go to work and know what it’s like to work in a restaurant.”
White, who has been at Albany Tech for two years, was an executive chef for 10 years, most recently at the Savannah Riverfront Marriott in Savannah. He says that learning how to cook is only a small portion of what he’s trying to teach the students in the Culinary Arts Department.
By establishing the Titans Culinary Cuisine Restaurant, he is able to take the lessons learned in the classroom and put them into action in a setting that is very much like a working restaurant, from the back-of-the-house cooking and prep work to the front-of-the-house seating and serving.
White said that the students arrive every Thursday morning and 8 a.m. and start setting up the restaurant, which, for the time being, is a sectioned-off portion of the student center inside the campus’ Logistics Education Center.
Students are responsible for setting up the tables and chairs, rolling silverware, setting up service stations and designing the centerpieces for the tables.
“They are responsible for every aspect of what’s going on in here,” said White. “They were split into teams and even had to come up with a centerpiece idea for each table. And we expect it to be right, just like in a restaurant. The tablecloths have to be done a certain way, with each corner the same length. They have to understand that everything is part of the customer’s experience.”
White said that despite the work involved in making the restaurant operate, the students actually volunteer to help out, even if they don’t have class that day.
“We get students asking to be a part of this, wanting to help,” White said.
Each week a different set of students is assigned to handling a different part of the operation so they all will have a well-rounded experience. One week a student might be waiting tables and the next week busing them. The week after that, the student might then be working in an area in the back of the house.
And it’s in the back of the house, really, that most of the magic happens for these budding chefs.
“The kitchen is where we get to have some fun,” White said. “I let them experiment with things and come up with new ideas, then we test those ideas out and figure out if they’ll work, and then we set up the menu. We choose things that are appealing and can be cooked throughout the restaurant.”
The current menu, White explained was designed to appeal to a broad customer base, with each item being something that could be made with consistency each week. That’s something he learned during his days working at large restaurants and hotels.
“These students have to understand corporate menus that have standardized recipes,” White said. “Most culinary students aren’t going to head right out and open their own restaurants or be in a position to design and plan a menu. They are going to have to be able to execute standardized recipes.
“With a corporate menu, you have to follow every little thing because it was made perfectly and the chef wants it to be just the same way every time for cost concerns, labor concerns and consistency. Consistency is really the most important thing. If you go into a restaurant and you have something, you want it to be just the same each time you go in there.
“The customer expects consistency,” he said. “If we’re teaching a student and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what I put in there,’ then that won’t work.”
While it’s important for the students to learn how to execute a corporate menu, White feels it’s important to allow the students to have some creativity as well. So, the restaurant’s menu allows for a weekly special that is pulled from things the students are learning in class.
“We’ll keep the same items on the menu, but we’ll do a special from a different region each week,” White said. “I’ll so some cooking, give them some ideas and then give them the opportunity to do their thing. Cooking is an art and some of these students do awesome things.”
The current menu, which White said will basically remain the same for the near future, features a variety of items that will appeal to different patrons.
The standard menu items include:
— Shrimp and Grits, consisting of fried gulf shrimp resting on a stone-ground grit cake with a Cajun Buerre Blanc;
— Grilled fish tacos, consisting of a piece of grilled flounder, garnished with fresh salsa and creme fraiche on a traditional artisan flatbread;
— Pizza Margherita, a traditional style pizza with fresh basil, tomato and mozzarella cheese with a garlic olive oil sauce;
— Bacon and Pimento Cheese Panini and Soup, with Applewood bacon, freshly prepared pimento cheese on lavash, served with soup of the day or salad;
— Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad, with fresh greens, black bean and corn salsa, tortilla chips, tomatoes, shredded cheese and grilled chicken, served with a choice of dressing;
— Meatloaf Sandwich, featuring a grilled piece of meatloaf topped with a tangy tomato sauce and house-made bacon jam on Texas toast, served with a side of sweet potato fries.
In addition to the standard entrees, diners also receive a starter item that is chosen each week to tie in with whatever special is being offered. Recently the class was studying Asian cuisine, with that week’s menu featuring a special entree of Sesame-encrusted Salmon filet, pan seared and served atop a bed of crispy rice noodles, with vegetables and a pineapple and coconut soy sauce.
That week’s tie-in starter consisted of Asian-style dumplings, stuffed with chicken and Chorizo sausage and served with a traditional Asian dumpling dipping sauce.
In addition to the entrees, diners can order one of two desserts for an additional $3. The current dessert choices include Praline Cheesecake with a pecan praline topping or Lemon Tart baked in a short bread crust.
So far, White said, response to the restaurant has been positive and he hopes to see it expand to the point where the culinary school is actually running a small restaurant all the time. White said one of the keys to making that happen is exposing diners in the area to different types of food.
“Part of what we are doing is educating the public on food,” White said. “Around here, you see a lot of fast food and buffet style and people just don’t have access to new things. We want them to get away from the fast food down the street and experience what real food tastes like.”
At the end of the day, however, White said it’s all about learning to prepare good food while teaching the students and the public what is out there for them to experience.
“Everybody always asks, ‘What’s your favorite food?’” White said. “You shouldn’t know what you’re favorite food is because you haven’t had everything yet. It’s the same way with me. People ask, ‘What’s your favorite thing to cook?’ I tell them I don’t know because I haven’t cooked everything. I see more things every day.
“It seems weird that I don’t know, but it’s true. I want to cook what you want to eat.
“I just like seeing people happy,” he said. “Everybody’s grandma used to cook. My grandma, when she cooked, it brought everybody together and made everybody happy. That’s the reason I got into this. If you like Vienna sausage, I’m going to make you the best Vienna sausage you can possibly have. It’s all about just making people happy, that’s what you want to do.”
The restaurant is open 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursdays diners are required to make reservations. Reservations can be made by calling (229) 430-0573 or by email at email@example.com.