In a state replete with fine restaurants and a booming culinary industry, this restaurant could be a contender.  Beautiful views, elegant place settings, meticulous preparation, attentive staff.  The attentive staff are actually all students – learning about the food and hospitality industry – and this dining room is their classroom. 

Front of the house, and back of the house (as they say in the industry), the many hands that make this dining room hum are those of the culinary students at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. On most Fridays during their semester, they learn by doing – prepping and assembly, line cooking, greeting and seating customers, and learning – on the job – all angles of the hospitality industry.

It is a two-year course of study led by seasoned chef instructors.  The first year covers the basics.  “First-year students it’s really about skill development and just fundamental … building that foundation of skills,” says Associate Professor Chef Anthony Poulin.  The students immerse themselves in the three classroom kitchens – learning meat butchery, knife skills, and the finesse of baking.  “In the second year, we’re kinda stepping it up a notch, and getting into the running of an operation, so, we’ll run a restaurant, serve lunch on a weekly basis, do different styles of a service.”  And the public clamors to these Friday lunches; often reservations fill up weeks in advance.

Richard Sheldon is a second-year student who hails from Caribou. On this Friday, he’s the maître-de for today’s lunch. He loves the hands-on aspect of the training. “It’s extremely valuable - I want to be as well rounded as I can in all facets of this industry so I feel like – I’ve never served before, I’ve never done anything in the front of the house. So this is extremely valuable to get that practice ‘cause it’s okay to make mistakes here, you know? You don’t wanna make mistakes obviously, but… you do. And, it’s really nice, to have, you know, that safety net.”

Patrons arrive and are seated by the students, who know they are making that first impression – they hope a positive dining experience starts with that first smile.

Valerie St. Louis is a second-year student who appreciates the immersion into various aspects of the industry. “You definitely need to have personality and friendliness, you need all of that to work in the public. You want to invite people in with your face!” She came to the program with a passion for baking. Her dream, at least at the moment, is to open her own food truck, serving up sweets. But this culinary program is teasing out other talents, cultivating skills that will allow her to ease into any facet of the industry.  “This is all brand new to me.  The hustle and the bustle, of working on the line, and being the chef of the week, or the sous chef of the week. It’s intense, it’s crazy, and I can’t imagine doing it for six-plus hours!”

The students plan, source, prepare and serve each Friday lunch, navigating that role of interacting with a diner and gauging their reaction to the meal. Chef Poulin’s goal is to prepare well-rounded students that really know what it will take to some day run their own restaurant.  “We’re not just training you to be a cook now, we’re training you… we’re preparing you for your future.”

The lunches start up again in February, and the reservations lines open the week of January 14th.  To learn more about the culinary program at Southern Maine Community College, and their Friday lunches – you can visit their website at https://www.smccme.edu/business-community/culinary-arts-luncheons/.