"Ivy Tech students hone skills at Culinary Expressions Café

Sometimes, the words “bargain” and “amateur” don’t add up to the most satisfactory of transactions. Consider the beauty school haircut. Friends of mine swear by their $5 dos from the hands of budding young stylists at local barber and beauty colleges. They rave about the great service they get, the attention these eager students offer for mere pocket change where professionals exact exorbitant fees.

The way I figure it, when it comes to life’s essentials — brake jobs, parachutes, haircuts — you ought not scrimp. The last cut-rate haircut I got involved an all-too-frank beauty school grad who revealed that her scores on final exams were “not that great.” When the manager of the salon turned to observe my haircut in progress, she exclaimed, “That’s not what he wants!” and the neophyte stylist dropped what she was doing mid-snip, scissors, comb and all. Any wonder why I now pay full price?

With dinner, the stakes are a little lower. You don’t have to wear a bad meal to work the next day. But why would you want to dine on amateur cuisine at Ivy Tech’s student-run Culinary Expressions Café when you could pay a kitchen full of experienced chefs to cook your meal? You want to do it because the students in Ivy Tech’s hospitality programs are doing many things as well or better than local restaurants, even taking risks other places won’t — and they’re doing this at decidedly reduced prices.

You may second guess your decision, however, when, fighting night school students for a parking spot and riding the elevator to the fourth floor of the main campus building, you find yourself amid classroom hallways nothing like the welcoming foyers of your favorite restaurants. Signs could be clearer, but soon enough a host ushers you out of the bright hallway into the dimly lit dining room. This “dining room” is actually set up in rooms that double as classrooms by day. Students themselves spiff up the place that overlooks Meridian Street with tablecloths and fresh flowers. A boom box offers a background of jazz. Décor is minimal, to be sure, but the café is cozy nonetheless.

According to Chef Jeff Bricker, program chair, who welcomed me to his table last Thursday, what’s unique about Ivy Tech’s hospitality programs is that they’re not as intensive as others. Coursework in specialties like baking and pastry arts or restaurant management is designed to take five semesters, around two years, though many students take longer, gaining valuable experience at area restaurants, banquet halls and hotels along the way. Culinary Expressions Café is just one part of students’ second-year curriculum.

Veteran banquet chef and instructor Ralph Comstock explained that, unlike the grads of more exclusive culinary schools, Ivy Tech alumni don’t have the culture shock of having to start back in salad prep to work their way up the line. In fact, with the experience many Ivy Tech grads earn, they often begin their careers in leadership roles. Many management grads make very respectable salaries at their first post-school positions.

The nine Thursdays the café is open evolve as students’ skills are developing under the guidance of their instructors, Chefs Thom England and Eric Piatek. For the first three weeks, a Chinese buffet lets the “staff,” both management and culinary students playing various roles, get their feet wet. Currently, the menu has moved on to à la carte items. Three weeks of tricky tableside preparations, a distinctly old school custom, will follow. This semester, the class will culminate with a fund-raiser banquet on Nov. 30 for IndyEthnicFood.com, a five-course meal drawing from such divergent cuisines as Italian and Vietnamese.

At the halfway point, things are going well. Emphasis is on “New World” fare, though promised Australian dishes seemed absent. Fresh tortilla chips and three salsas began the meal. One advantage of a student-run restaurant is that chef instructors allow few shortcuts. Students must learn to prepare everything from scratch. Appetizers and soups, all just $2, included a delicious pupusa, a Salvadoran specialty scarcely available around town. Here, a tasty bean paste encased in thick, obviously homemade tortillas came topped with plenty of tangy melted cheese. A fresh, if somewhat timid salsa accompanied, along with sour cream.

Entrées were well-prepared, though presentation might not yet win any awards. A Latin-American dish of fried pork was tasty, if wearing too little of a promised garlic sauce. An intriguing wedge of yucca replaced the typical potato, and a nice mélange of rice and black beans completed this well-balanced dish.

Maybe because they can be prepared ahead, desserts were by far the most artful and impressive. A “pastel de tres leches” (cake with three milks) was unlike any of the dense versions you’d find anywhere else. A light, utterly moist sponge cake came topped with a thick ridge of whipped cream, as well as luscious sauces and fresh tropical fruits.

If anything, service was a little stiff. Our waiters, while attentive, did little to play up the international appeal of the meals. Despite this, dinner at Culinary Expressions Café was a novel experience that demonstrated all that Ivy Tech is doing to prepare staff for Indy’s booming restaurant and hotel scene. A student haircut? Maybe not. A student meal? You bet.

Culinary Expressions Café

50 W. Fall Creek Parkway North Drive

tengland@ivytech.edu or 317-921-4619

for reservations


Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m. through Nov. 16

“Indy Feast of Nations”

Nov. 30, 6 p.m.

For more information visit www.indyethnicfood.org.