Chef’s table experience offered at NMU student restaurant

by Pam Christensen

One of the latest trends in dining is the inclusion of a chef’s table. Restaurants around the country are placing a table in or near the kitchen, so people seated there can interact with the chef and back of the house staff. The chef’s table seats a select few and, in some restaurants, is sold at a premium.
One of the first restaurants to offer a chef’s table was the Storefront Company in Chicago. Over ten years ago, Bryan Moscatell, chef and partner of the restaurant, started offering a chef’s table experience. At that time, such seating was considered a status symbol. Today, Moscatell says many people are attracted to the chef’s table for the educational value and the opportunity to interact with the chef and other kitchen staff.
San Francisco’s One Market Restaurant’s chef’s table seats four to seven in the heart of the kitchen. In addition to a seven-course tasting menu, guests are privy to a tour of the wine cellar and pastry kitchen. During weekdays, the chef’s table fee is $85.00 per person. On the weekend, the same experience is $95.00. Prices do not include beverages, tax or gratuity.
Some chefs use the chef’s table as a testing ground, trying out new menu ideas or experimenting with limited quantity ingredients on the guests. The process is twofold — guests get a unique experience and the chef gets honest reaction. Others find using a chef’s table as a charity event donation elevates the restaurant’s status and visibility.
1412_arts_nmu_chefs_table_groupWhile this trend has gained traction in large cities around the country, it also has been tried in Marquette, not by a commercial establishment, but at Chez Nous, the Northern Michigan University hospitality management-run restaurant.
Christopher Kibit serves as a professor in the program, and introduced students who operate the restaurant to the chef’s table concept last year. This year, the program has been expanded and is offered at each of ten dinners held at Chez Nous during the fall semester.
Students in Kibit’s supervision class manage all aspects of the menu and restaurant operations. A team of students is responsible for developing the theme, menu, music and table scape for the evening’s meal.
They plan which students will work in which area of the restaurant. Some students are selected for back of the house (kitchen) while others are front of the house (hosting and serving).
“Students in our program frequently come to us with one of two experiences. They may have experience in back of the house — working in a kitchen or front of the house — as a server or hostess. We find that they may be strong in one area, but they don’t always see the big picture. They don’t know how it all works together,” said Kibit. “This class, supervision, changes all of that. It forces them to think, be creative and to plan. It gets them ready for management and makes them realize that in this industry there are a lot of moving parts.”
Kibit knows how important it is for students to see and understand every aspect of the hospitality industry. He has spent almost forty years in the business, and realizes your career does not always go as planned. He started out working in kitchens as a teen, studied hospitality, worked in catering and banquet services and then landed a job as chef to the president of Michigan State University. Despite his success, he realized how important the proper foundation can be for hospitality professionals. He directed his education toward preparing himself to instruct and educate other hospitality hopefuls, finally landing at NMU.
The hospitality management program at NMU gives students the opportunity to select a two- or four-year degree. More importantly, the program gives them time to experiment under the direction of seasoned professionals like Kibit and other instructors. Adding the chef’s table to the supervision class gives students a new experience, one that is found only in innovative restaurants around the country. Kibit has researched who in Michigan offers a chef’s table, and has found only two restaurants doing so.
I was a guest at the chef’s table for the second dinner of the season, Sea and Sky, held on October 30. My husband Ralph and our friends David and Kathy Singer joined us for dinner. Three students — John Filippelli, Connor Varner and Gavin Crawford — were responsible for the meal and interacting with the chef’s table that evening.
Filippelli is a native of Detroit, and has been working in restaurant kitchens for a number of years. He has worked in an Italian carryout restaurant, Fishbones (a Cajun Creole eatery) and the Sahara, featuring Lebanese cuisine. He started his formal education at culinary school, but transferred to NMU because it offered hands-on experience.
“So much of what I learned at culinary school was theory and procedure,” Filippeli said. “I like the fact that NMU offers such a wide range of classes and we focus on how to do things. I don’t think I ever would have received the management training at culinary school as I have at NMU.”
Connor Varner, from Jackson, also is no stranger to restaurant kitchens. He has worked at the Landmark Inn and Perkins in Marquette, and is employed currently at Elizabeth’s Chop House. His route to the hospitality management program was circuitous. He started out in NMU’s art and design program before realizing a hospitality career was his true calling.
The third member of the team was Gavin Crawford of Eaton Rapids. Crawford was responsible for the front of the house and the evening’s ambiance. He also has hospitality experience —spending last summer working on the banquet staff at a ranch in Montana.
At the beginning of the semester, teams are challenged to develop a theme for their dinner and to implement that theme with menu choices. The Sea and Sky team said that was the easiest part of their project. They agreed they wanted a simple theme — not too fancy or pretentious, but not too simple, either. They also wanted to offer foods that reflected their skills and were not overdone. The entire process of selecting the menu took them about one hour. They had a lot of ideas and sifted through those they thought best to develop the offerings for their evening.
Varner says, “We worked with flavors that go well with one another, and built on each course. We wanted flavors that people would appreciate and that were not foods they are offered over and over. We wanted flavors and foods that would play off of one another.”
1412_arts_chefs_table_saladFilippelli used a chicken recipe he has been experimenting with since he was in high school. “That sauce is my go-to recipe. I have been working to develop a contrast of flavors. There is lemon in there and that adds interest. If we didn’t do anything else, I knew we had to use my chicken recipe.”
Varner was responsible for the smoked duck salad dressed with apple and bacon. The trio actually smoked the duck breasts themselves, and paired them with mixed greens, apples, fennel, fig, caramelized walnuts and bacon. They used apple and hickory wood in the smoker to offset the sweetness of the fruit in the salad.
Despite their design to keep the meal simple, there was nothing simple about the flavors, variety and presentation of the five courses. The group opened the meal with an amuse bouche featuring crab salad on cucumber with a hint of lemon and an avocado sorbet. The second course was a delicious corn chowder containing clams, followed by the smoked duck salad.
Diners were asked to select one of two entrées. Filippelli’s grilled chicken was smothered in a palate-exciting white wine sauce. The dish was enhanced with sun dried tomatoes, onion, garlic, delicate seasonings and a creamy dollop of goat cheese. The second entrée featured a fresh salmon filet encrusted in a zesty blend of lemon, dill, tarragon and panko, gently seared and finished in the oven. Both entrees were accompanied by steamed broccolini and a savory risotto infused with bacon, kale, onion and red pepper.
As with any meal, dessert was well worth the wait. The Sea and Sky dinner finished with a rich and decadent crème brulee paired with raspberry sorbet.
During each course, one of the students would visit with the chef’s table occupants to explain the course and get reactions.
1412_arts_chefs_table_prepWhen asked how they liked the chef’s table experience, all three agreed it was valuable to have kitchen visitors. “We didn’t want to focus on the chef’s table,” said Varner. “To do so might have distracted us, and caused the dining experience of the other Chez Nous guests to suffer. We didn’t want that to happen.”
Chez Nous visitors might focus on the food or the service, but to do so does not give the students in the supervision class enough credit. “The real experience here is to give each and every student management experience. I tell them over and over that one minute of planning can save three minutes of doing. I don’t think they realize this is true until they try to put into practice all of the pieces of operating a restaurant,” says Kibit.
“Our students seem to gravitate to one aspect of restaurant operations. They generally feel more comfortable in the back of the house, cooking and preparing food, or in the front of the house, greeting and serving guests. I hate to say that the two never meet, but this course helps them realize that they can’t just focus on one aspect, they have to see the whole picture.”
The whole picture is a lesson that resonated with Filippelli, Varner and Crawford. Filippeli said, “We were ready. We spent time planning, we were confident we had the right people in the right places. We spent Tuesday and Wednesday prepping and were in the kitchen at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday. There were a few things that went wrong, but overall, we were ready and are pleased with how our dining experience played out.”
Varner, an experienced kitchen veteran, spent more time agonizing over who should go where than the menu or worrying about whether the meal would come together. “That supervision piece is one you don’t always learn in a kitchen. Supervising classmates was a new experience. You have to direct all the pieces of the puzzle. It was also strange for me to have so many people in the kitchen. At the Chop House we may have three people in the kitchen, max, but here we had more than ten. It was a challenge to assess who had what experience and what strengths. In the end, we made the right decisions.”
Crawford felt his success in the front of the house hinged on communication. “For many of the students this was all new. We had to rely on each other, and I had to keep people from getting frustrated if things didn’t go the way they expected. I was pleased to see how everyone worked together to achieve what we wanted to do.”
Each student team in supervision is responsible for one of the ten meals offered during the fall semester. The meals are a set price of $15.00 each. Chez Nous guests are encouraged to tip the waitstaff, just as they do in a real restaurant. The tips are collected each night and pooled. At the end of the semester, tips are split equally between all class members. “We pool the tips, so the students realize that the entire experience does not hinge just on what the front of the house staff does. The tips are a reflection of the application of the complete process,” said Kibit.
Chez Nous visitors are asked to complete an evaluation of each course, the service and what they would like to see in the future. This gives students valuable feedback and helps subsequent teams make adjustments, to provide a more pleasant and satisfying dining experience. Kibit sits the entire class down after the dinner to review guest comments and evaluations. The group also discusses its own evaluation of the evening.
Kibit is proud the NMU hospitality program challenges students and tries to give them relevant skills and marketable degrees. Innovations such as the program’s Culinary Café, Chez Nous and the chef’s table expose students to multiple phases of the hospitality industry. Kibit is excited about two new course offerings being developed for students next semester. International Cuisine, developed by NMU executive chef Nathan Mileski and Food Science, offered by adjunct instructor Andrew Sear, are classes that will introduce NMU students to some of the new dining trends popular today.
“Our goal is to keep pace with what is happening in the industry today and prepare students not only to work in the field but to be effective in their career,” said Kibit. “We don’t want food technicians; we want food professionals who can operate at multiple levels and be an asset wherever they end up.”
Filippelli, Varner and Crawford are well on their way to understanding those principles. As Filippelli said, “The big picture is important, but it is also the little things that we learn in the kitchen here, in working with others in the class and from our instructors that add up to make us the professionals we want to be. There are lots of hands working together to get us where we want to be.”
If the Sea and Sky meal is any indication, Professor Kibit and his colleagues in the NMU hospitality management are giving students the preparation and experiences they need to become valuable professionals wherever they end up.

— Pam Christensen


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