Friday, 8:30 a.m.
The smell of spices and teriyaki fills the air in the culinary arts room at Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton. The dicing, frying and steaming begins in preparation for the ultimate test for high school chefs: Can they stand the heat in the kitchen when it comes to serving customers?
A long day is ahead for the chefs and servers of the Panther Palate, a student-run restaurant.
Every Friday evening the culinary arts school opens its doors to the community to showcase its students' work, offering a gourmet five-course meal for $30.
Although the restaurant does not begin serving until 4:30 p.m., with a second seating at 6:30 p.m., chef Tim Witcher, a culinary arts teacher, and his students prep all day for the hectic dinner.
The school's Westampton campus, with its 1,245 full-day students, is one of two technical high schools in Burlington County; the other is in Medford. The Westampton campus offers 22 career majors, including culinary arts.
For this particular week, students centered their five courses on an Asian-inspired theme, cooking up spring rolls, sushi and chocolate wontons. The student chefs prepped and cooked 20 different dishes for the night, giving them a taste of real restaurant life.
"If they are planning to go to culinary school or college, they'll never get that real restaurant experience unless you work in one. You can't get this kind of speed anywhere else," said Witcher, 29, who graduated from the program and went on to serve as the executive chef at the Wachovia Center and the Wyndham Mount Laurel.
After chopping carrots, steaming rice and searing tuna, Witcher gathered the young chefs to teach them how to roll sushi. Quickly picking up the lesson, Francis Hagan rolled and cut the sushi like a pro, touching off the plate with wasabi and soy sauce.
Hagan, a senior, has become the assistant chef to Witcher, working side by side with him on main courses.
"We've done an Italian, Mexican and French country theme. It's taught me new styles, new tastes and new techniques," Hagan said.
Hagan, who is quiet and focused in the kitchen, acts as a team leader, pulling many of the preparations together.
While others prepare ingredients, junior Tyshima Hicks adds tablecloths on the round dining-room tables. The tall red, yellow and orange silk-flower arrangements by fellow horticulture students are added to complete the Asian theme.
For this dinner, Dylan Mueller, a junior, played server. A three-year veteran of the Panther Palate, he recalls what a pressure cooker the kitchen can be for newcomers.
"It's a little intimidating at first because you get scared that everyone seems to know what they are doing and you don't. But after being here for three years, you get a hands-on feel of what you are supposed to be doing."
Witcher does double duty as the school's wrestling coach. In the kitchen, although Witcher towers over many of the young chefs, his students are comfortable with him, exchanging jokes and asking questions.
Witcher lets students lead in the kitchen, only lending a hand when plating the food. But when the dinner rush hits, sometimes Witcher needs to keep the students on track. "I never raise my voice in the kitchen, do I?" Witcher asks jokingly as his students laugh.
4:30 p.m. After hours of preparation, the first guests finally arrive and are seated. The most chaotic part of the evening begins.
Hicks prepares fresh carrot, raisin and ginger salads from the mock-up done earlier in the day, and Mueller hurries the first course off to the guests.
Hagan mans the grill and stove with Witcher supervising, preparing two of the main courses, a flank steak and duck. Flames jet above the pan as he stir-fries rice and vegetables. Though there is a rush to get the courses to the tables, Hagan plates the food with care, delicately arranging each piece of meat and vegetable, then garnishing the dish with sauce.
After finally getting the tempura just right, a student miscalculates the number of shrimp needed for an entrée. Witcher raises his voice for the first time and sends the student back to the fryer so the dishes can be served on time.
Even though the group has been prepping all day, chaos is inevitable as the students rush to keep up. One guest arrives late, challenging the kitchen and serving staff to catch her up to the other guests at the table.
During the scramble, Mueller drops a serving of sorbet, forcing Jocelyn Tirando, the pastry chef, to scoop another.
"I like the high-pressure environment," Tirando said. "In our career, it is fast-paced and you are always going to be on the run. You can't expect everyone to slow down for you. You have to work at the pace of the customers."
But the real test isn't all in how students handle the chaos but in what the diners think of their creation. "It's too beautiful to eat!" exclaimed Bertha Morrison of Burlington. "These are the biggest shrimp I have ever seen!" added her grandson C.J. Atkinson, a student at the school.
Witcher was pleased too.
"There has been a really great response from the community. It's like the best-kept secret. No one knows what to expect when you come to a restaurant in a school. You expect chicken fingers and french fries, but we are trying for something a lot more elegant," Witcher said.
Adds Mueller: "It's really fun to be here. I'm getting way more experience here than I would at a regular job because I'm here with my teachers but it's a restaurant too."
Tirando, the aspiring restaurant owner, takes her cues from the customers.
"When we first opened up, we couldn't even have all the people that wanted to make reservations. They were like, 'Wow, a high school is actually doing this.' Everyone really supported us as a community."