Food Prep

L ike any professional restaurant, The Owl Café’s kitchen is clean and well-stocked. It’s got a prep station for soups and salads and a separate area for cooking hot entrees. It even has a state-of-the-art dishwashing sink with jacuzzi-style jets.

But there’s something unique about this establishment: The bakers, prep cooks, chefs and dish washers are all high school students. Wearing professional white smocks, aprons and hats, these would-be culinary pros are students at Eli Whitney Technical High School in Hamden, and they’d like to cook for you.

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Grilled Pork Marsala ($6.50), a Bratwurst and Sauerkraut Sandwich ($6), Braised Chicken in Puff Pastry ($6.50), Penne Bolognaise ($5.50) and a Smoked Turkey and Apple Salad ($5.50) were among the lunch items on a recent weekly menu at The Owl Café, the school’s bright and inviting public restaurant. But before we sit down to eat, chef Edwin Armstrong, Culinary Department Head, takes me on a tour of the school’s three kitchens.

One services the cafe, another is a bakery and the third feeds the school cafeteria, where students cook for students every day. Here, head cook Carol Lehrer runs freshmen and sophomores through the paces of feeding 500 people. “You have to be flexible, you make things work,” she says as students line up in the serving area just outside the kitchen. “They’re learning, so things happen,” she admits cheerfully. “Things get burned, and yes, you have to prepare. You always make sure you have a little extra or a backup plan.”

Chef Harroll Curry, who’s been with the program the longest—about 18 years—specializes in teaching these younger students the fundamental skills they need, which includes a lot of chopping, slicing and dicing. He points out that unlike their classmates in some of the school’s other technical programs, these kids have their work critiqued by their peers every day. “That’s a good thing for them,” he says. “They have to learn how to deal with customers who are happy and unhappy.”

As juniors, the culinary students graduate to the cafe and the bakery, furnished with mixers, proof boxes and baking ovens. This morning, they’ve already baked cookies and the delicious, butter-crusted dinner rolls that are about to turn up at our lunch table. Pizza dough is in the works for a later volleyball game, and several rectangular dessert plates are the canvases where students have tried out different designs for the sauces that will dress up their presentation.

With experience in all three kitchens and an industrial ServSafe food safety certification, Eli Whitney’s culinary students graduate ready to work. They’re “not newbies to the field,” Armstrong says. “They’re green, but they’re experienced green.” Many will go straight to work in the industry, he says, while estimating that about 25% will go to culinary school. Still others end up studying in unrelated fields. He ticks off what some of his former students are doing now: a doctor, a lawyer, a record producer, counselors, entrepreneurs, an alum who owns an international food truck business and another who’s worked his way into management at Pepe’s pizzerias.

The culinary program is just one of Eli Whitney’s technical offerings. Students can choose among carpentry, electrical, plumbing and heating, digital media, sound production, biotechnology, hairdressing, information systems, criminal justice, welding and metal fabrication, mechanical design and engineering, marketing, automotive technology and more. Many of the school’s “shops” do business with the public, so you could bring your car in for work, get a haircut and have lunch at Eli Whitney. They also do business with one another. As we stand in the bake shop, a student from the marketing, management and entrepreneurship program stops by with a business card order for culinary student Jaylen Albright, who’s starting his own business, Royal Chefs.

Armstrong and I sit down in the cafe for lunch with the school’s safety officer, business manager and assistant administrator. Junior Qur’an Watkins, smartly dressed in a white shirt and black bow tie, brings our basket of rolls and asks if we’d like water. Today he’s recommending the bratwurst sandwich. To start, everyone orders soup—either Broccoli Cheddar or Lentil and Smoked Chicken ($3.50).

The Owl Café can seat up to 100 people, though today just three tables have been neatly set with white dinnerware, a full set of utensils, water glasses and bud vases of cheerful red flowers. Students serve a few banquets for outside groups during the year, but there’s plenty of room for customers to come in for lunch. A separate cafe entrance was nixed in the age of heightened school security, so visitors have to check in at the main office first. Armstrong suggests calling ahead, though drop-ins are welcome.

In addition, the cafe does a brisk takeout business, delivering lunches to teachers in the building. Students also bake Thanksgiving pies and sides and cater events in the community. Anyone can call Armstrong with a catering job, and if it’s compatible with the school curriculum, his students will take it on. Part of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, Eli Whitney Tech has 660 students, hailing from seven towns, who switch between academic and shop classes in roughly 10-day blocks. Underclassmen take some academic classes daily even when they’re in the kitchen or the garage or out on a construction site.

Our broccoli cheddar soup comes out piping hot and nicely dressed with a few flakes of parsley. A sharp Vermont cheddar gives it a tasty zing. The service is attentive and extremely polite. And the price is right. But the real reason to eat at The Owl Café, says Tim Viens, the assistant administrator, is the kids.

“I always check with the kids to see who’s making what, who had a hand in the making,” he says as we eat. He likes to try something cooked by each student. The menu promises desserts “baked with care by student bakers,” but sitting down to be served by them is an act of caring, too.

The Owl Café
Eli Whitney Technical High School – 100 Fairview Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 397-4031, ext. 3919
For Thanksgiving breads, biscuits, cookies, pies and sides, email Edwin.Armstrong@ct.gov

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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