Fine Dining Meant To Be Shared

November 1, 2008 | By More

Story by Dianne Edwards

A fine dining experience — one as special as the ATU Parks, Recreation and Hospitality Chef Series — is meant to be shared. However, few are aware of what just what tantalizing delights await them. Each Thursday night through Nov. 20, the public is invited to enjoy a wonderful meal prepared under the direction of one of Arkansas’s many talented chefs. The meals are hosted in Williamson Hall, 1205 N. El Paso, on the campus of Arkansas Tech.

Ray Moll, assistant professor and special event coordinator for the Arkansas Tech University Parks, Recreation and Hospitality Administration, is pleased with the number of diners of late. However, he, like others, believes the opportunity is a ‘well-kept secret,’ one that needs to be shared before the fall series ends on Nov. 20.

This semester’s series is a first, in that past ‘chef-lead’ dinners were previously limited to one per semester rather than seven. Having an entire ‘chef’s series’ featuring seven different chefs, gives students experience equal to an intensive internship-of-sorts. And in most internships, culinary students are exposed to the techniques and managerial styles taught by only one or two chefs — rarely as many as seven.

“This gives the students an incredible edge when it comes to learning different techniques,” he explained. “This is almost unheard of in our industry.”

The meals are prepared under the direction of the visiting chef. Senior level hospitality students, those taking the ‘quantity food production’ class, have the opportunity to also learn to manage people. Students taking the ‘basic food preparation’ sophomore-level course, become team members led by the senior students each week.

The first step includes a conversation with the visiting chef, who will make a recommendation for the menu. The seniors then meet and decide what they would like to prepare and food is ordered for the upcoming meal. Deliveries are only made on Monday and Fridays, so accuracy is important. Meal planning is for approximately 100 guests and students.

As many as 30 students are responsible for the preparation and orchestration of each night’s event. They include teams for the “front of the house, or FOH” and the “back of the house, or BOH.” Front of the house includes the wait staff and table hosts and hostesses – those immediately seen by guests; BOH refers to all those “behind the scenes” who are busy with last minute preparations.

Work begins actively the day before, on Wednesday, when the ‘prep’ work is done. One week, for example, there were 35 pounds of fresh shrimp to be boiled and peeled, and three cases of celery and 20 pounds of onions to be cleaned and finely chopped. And that was just for a part of the entrée. It’s easy to see that these efforts could not be left until Thursday, day of the meal.

However, work begins promptly at 9 a.m. on Thursday. After the diners leave, generally about 8 p.m., class is still in session. The evening will conclude as late as 10 p.m. when students gather for a wrap- up meeting and an opportunity to enjoy the meal themselves.

Ray Moll, a graduate of Sacred Heart in Morrilton and of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, is responsible for the ‘chef series’ itself. He will explain his introduction into the hospitality program, ‘just happened’ gradually after he was between jobs.

In 2003, his sister Rhonda was in need of a bone marrow transplant, and Ray, just two years apart in age, became that willing donor. After his recovery, in 2004, he became an adjunct professor at ATU. He later became assistant professor and special events coordinator.

Donna Mitchell is an adjunct instructor for the ATU program, as well. And, as an instructor in the Russellville Area Career and Technical Center, she is instrumental in promoting the school’s “pro-start” Hospitality program. As much as $15,000 in scholarship money was available to high school graduates last year through the Arkansas Hospitality Association.

The meals are exquisite, “unlike anything I’ve dined on in this area in the past 30 years,” raved one guest. Others, who were lucky enough to enjoy the first of the series when it began on Oct. 2, haven’t missed an evening yet. (and don’t plan to, either!)

Chef Edward Hornyak (center photo) was the October 16th guest chef. On Oct. 23, Chef Mike Merle was the fuest chef. Both are graduates of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Chef Merle, who has worked under Chef Dan Smith of Thymes Restaurant in Kingston, N.Y., has over 30 years of food service experience. He serves as member of the Arkansas Tech Culinary Advisory Committee, a group which lends its advice and support to the ATU program.

Under his instruction, the meal consisted of Red Rock Seafood Bisque with Chive Oil and a salad consisting of Baby Spring Greens with Toasted Pecans and Pears Tossed with Balsamic Vinaigrette. The entrée was Roasted Chicken Carbonara with Bacon and Tomato, accompanied by Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Dessert was an Ultimate Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis and Crème Anglaise.

Every other meal has been just as exquisite.

The price of the evening meal is generally $20.95 per person, and guest tickets need to be paid by cash or check as the department is unable to accept debit or credit payments. All gratuities are invested in the Walters-Williams Scholarship.

A fall lunch series began in September and continues on Wednesdays for several more weeks during the fall semester. The menu varies each week. For example, on recent menu included Chicken Fiesta Soup, Fajita Chicken Taco salad, Key Lime Pie plus a beverage for $9.95. Lunch hours are 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. with no reservations necessary except for parties of 5 or more.

On Nov. 8, the ATU Hospitality program celebrates its 25th year of operation. To date, it is the only accredited university program in the state of Arkansas. (In 2007, there were less than three dozen such programs in the Nation.)

A spring series lunch and evening ‘chefs series’ is planned with dates to be announced.

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