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Food & dining

‘Chef for a night’ gives students real-life experience

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts student Jade Fong.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts student Jade Fong.

CAMBRIDGE — In the kitchen tonight, the tables are turned. “Ali, how do you want the strawberries cut?,” asks EVOO chef and co-owner Peter McCarthy, turning to a student.

“Thinly sliced,” answers guest chef Alison Sherrington, who is studying at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

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Since 2007, McCarthy has welcomed culinary students monthly to his Kendall Square restaurant as part of the school’s “chef for a night” series. “It’s a great opportunity for students to get some real-life experience in a restaurant,” says the chef. “I get a feel for what they’re comfortable with.” He helps them fine-tune a three-course menu. Students prep the ingredients one or two days ahead and help cook and plate their dishes during their debut.

For Sherrington’s big night, she tips her toque to her British heritage with a menu of spring pea ravioli with mint-butter sauce and an oven-fried version of fish and chips — baked pollock and “chunky chips” (roasted potato wedges) with malt vinegar mayonnaise. Dessert is a Napoleon-style version of the classic Eton Mess, made with whipped cream, meringue cookies, and strawberries.

“It’s my first time in a professional kitchen,” says Sherrington, 29, an attorney, who’s living in Boston for two years while her husband studies for an MBA at Harvard. “I loved cooking before, so it seemed like an obvious way to spend the year.”

Matthew Lagace, another recent graduate of CSCA’s 37-week Professional Chef’s Program, had his turn in February. Like Sherrington, the 27-year-old had never worked on the line in a restaurant. His menu included braised and seared pork belly served with farro-fig risotto, and for dessert, a riff on a cheese plate with a goat cheese gougere, candied hazelnuts, and strawberry- rhubarb sorbet. “The biggest challenge was meeting the deadlines in time for service,” he says.

Real-world experience can help students choose the right career or avoid a bad match. At CSCA, says Julie Burba, assistant director of education, “Our niche is the career-changer. Most students want a career in culinary arts, but they’re not sure which path they want to take.”

Kitchen experience is essential. At Newbury College’s hotel and restaurant management program, four-year culinary students work at the college’s Lois and David Weltman Dining Room and participate in two internships at area restaurants and hotels. “Work in the industry gives students a level of professionalism,” says David Pazmino, professor of culinary arts. “When they go out there, they never know what they’re going to find.” One student excelled at oyster shucking, winning second prize in a major shucking competition. Others, he says, “find out what they don’t want to do.”

Fong’s chocolate creations.

Fong’s chocolate creations.

Sherrington admits she’s not interested in working in a restaurant kitchen. “I would love to work for a food-related business,” she says, “but not necessarily preparing food.”

Another CSCA student, Jade Fong, knows exactly what she wants to do. The 30-year-old from Los Angeles is moving to Shanghai in the fall, hoping to land a position as a pastry chef or chocolatier. Fong recently completed the school’s professional pastry program and interned at EHChocolatier in Somerville. At EVOO two months ago, she showcased two confections: a peanut-dusted dome of frozen chocolate cream with bourbon caramel and a coconut pineapple layer cake. She felt like she had to compete with what was on the restaurant’s dessert menu and thought “it was a challenge to come up with something that could.”

The newly minted pastry chef also had to plan carefully. “I had to think out every component and take into account the layout and quirks of the kitchen,” she says. “In school you have a huge kitchen, unlimited pots and pans, and many ovens. In the real world, you get one oven and you have to figure out how to share it with the savory chef.”

Boston University’s culinary arts students also spend time in a handful of restaurants. At Brookline’s Taberna de Haro, students work with chef-owner Deborah Hansen preparing pisto manchego, a mixture of braised eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and onions with eggs poached in pockets of the vegetables, and rabbit sauteed with garlic and brandy (conejo al ajillo). “It’s a very big reality check,” says Hansen. “They’re seeing the kitchen’s possibilities and its limitations.”

At Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, chef and co-owner Jeremy Sewall creates a “mock restaurant” during closed lunchtime hours. BU students write a menu and prepare it for about 30 guests. “It’s inspirational for these kids,” he says. Sewall has hired a few graduates, including current chef de cuisine Nicki Hobson. “She’s a standout grad of the BU program,” he says.

When students cook at EVOO, says McCarthy, “We want them to have a good experience.” They’re usually excited and nervous, he says, because their friends and family are coming to dine.

He’s there to cheer them on. “I’m not going to let them fail,” he says.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.
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