When professional schools unleash the work of their upperclasspersons on the public, the pupils get the ultimate training experience and the consumer usually gets a bargain. In my days of student penury I got a reasonable haircut at a barber college for about a quarter of the going rate; I still have friends who go to dental colleges for serious mouth work, mostly with acceptable results. And currently one of the most economic fine-dining experiences in town is at the CHIC Cafe, the acronymic public dining room of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
The River North school is the brainchild of Linda Calafiore, an elementary school teacher who had absolutely no background in the food-service industry when she launched this operation 12 years ago. Since then she's built it into a major, professionally accredited training institution. It used to serve the public on a more occasional schedule, but early this year the CHIC Cafe began serving meals to the public seven days a week, though dinner is still available only on Saturday. The four-course dinner is $22, three-course lunch or brunch $10, with a la carte ordering permitted at lunchtime. You bring your own beer or wine.
The decor isn't very interesting--sort of like a pleasant company lunchroom--but from most tables you can watch the cooks at work through a large glass window. They are at the final stage in their studies, which have ranged from seven months to several years. After dozens of intensive hands-on courses, they get their baptism working in the cafe kitchen, complete with temperamental chefs as supervisors. Right before graduation they work as waiters in the cafe, just to keep them humble.
The aspiring chefs are, as in a World War II foxhole movie, of all sizes and colors and from all walks of life, though only a few have had previous restaurant experience. Mark, 24, was a stockbroker for three years but harbored a yen to cook. Stacy, 34, spent a decade working in a top position at a major real estate management firm. Ann, 33, used to be comptroller of an advertising agency. LeShawn, 23, was a naval airman.
Now here they are in the CHIC classrooms, white-coated and white-toqued, simmering wine and herbs, then beating butter into the reductions to make hollandaise and its offshoot sauces: bearnaise, maltaise, and choron. Or piping seasoned mashed potatoes out into croquettes and royal duchesse potatoes or back into their shells for twice-baked.
Their teachers are pros: Richard Cusick, for instance, used to be pastry chef at Charlie Trotter's and sous chef to Jean Joho at the Everest Room. A written exam he was passing back to a baking class while I was visiting featured such questions as: "Is fresh-milled flour good for bread making (explain)?" "List six functions of sugar. List eight functions of eggs." "Define couverture." One course Cusick runs is devoted just to wedding cakes; baking and decorating them are two separate studies. He also supervises the cafe kitchen Saturday nights.
This fall the school has about 600 students, most of them on a professional track. A remarkable 94 percent of its graduates are placed in the food-service field, many in significant mid-level jobs. But the school also offers shorter courses, such as sessions November 3 and 10 on preparing traditional and vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners. (Admission is $50 a session or $90 for both.)
So after all this schooling, how does the food rate? Above average. Everything is made in-house, from the excellent breads and rolls to the sausage to the often lavish desserts. If there is a running flaw, it is that many of the dishes are prepared early and show signs of standing.
But for the most part the food is well executed and inventive--and beautifully presented. One luncheon featured a crisp salmon cake appetizer with a chunky, tangy lime salsa. Vegetable soup, laden with early fall produce, was underseasoned, but the potato salad with jalapeno and egg was splendid. A super entree was a trio of thin pork medallions, perfectly grilled, with a zingy chive sauce, accompanied by a lusty puree of potatoes, carrots, and garlic. This dish, a la carte for $6, could hold its own anywhere for twice the price. Dessert was a Cusick special: a cake of baked meringue slices, layered and topped with superrich butter cream.
Dinner one well-packed Saturday (there is only one seating) offered some airy gnocchi on a bed of tomato coulis and some fine escargot with burgundy butter sauce for starters. We could have bypassed the puree of butternut squash soup, but my companion and I really enjoyed both entrees: roasted chicken breast with satay sauce and nicely done mahimahi with a tingling ginger-cucumber relish. The creme brulee, perfectly finished, was slightly cool instead of gently warm, but otherwise voluptuous in the mouth.
A group of graduates now working at such restaurants as Catch 35, Le Margaux, and Maggiano's Little Italy will showcase their specialties Friday, October 21, with an evening of tastings and demonstrations held throughout the school. Things run from 6 to 8; the $25 ticket benefits the school's scholarship fund. The CHIC Cafe, 361 W. Chestnut, takes noon reservations for lunch and Sunday brunch; Saturday dinner starts between 7:30 and 8. Call 944-0882.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.