Vo-Tech Restaurant Teaches Beyond the Recipe
Vo-Tech has its own working restaurant for students to learn.
In the kitchen, chefs ran back and forth Feb. 9, preparing plates, cutting seafood and cooking meats, while servers came in and out carrying orders from hungry customers.
But this is no ordinary restaurant—this is Trade Wins, located beyond the cafeteria at the Somerset County Vocational & Technical High School, and run by the culinary dining management students and staff.
"This brings in a different kind of education, and makes the kids more marketable when they graduate," said Chef Mark Mastrobattista, one of the teachers on staff in the department. "The kids run the restaurant and I try to stay out of it as much as possible."
Trade Wins as a restaurant opened initially on Nov. 20, 2008, but the department itself had been changing for years before that.
According to Chef John Vingara—who graduated from the school's department in 1980, and has worked for the school since 1982—the department has been changing for years. Vingara said he joined after another teacher had to step away due to a medical issue, and the school opted to bring in someone who had experience at the school.
"I brought the program into the 20th century, with upgrading techniques and programs," he said. "I took what I knew from my education at the Culinary Institute and getting my certification at The College of New Jersey."
But, Vingara said, it was about teaching the students to work beyond the recipes.
"I knew what the students lacked because I knew what I got in my education," he said. "But when you get a good kid in a bad situation, he will still be good. And I knew how to make it better."
Still, Vingara said, the students had no interaction with the public themselves, which is still a part of the culinary arts. The students began to get that experience through bringing food to Taste of Somerset every year.
"We started that 15 years ago, and they learn how to deal with people and communicate," he said, adding that students have also been hired by different restaurants at that event.
But when the administration changed at the school, Vingara said, there were some options presented as the new superintendent sought to make the department more modern.
Creating the kitchen, Vingara said, was a two-year project, with another three years before the dining room of the restaurant was complete.
And the purpose of the restaurant is to have the public come in, with students taking turns serving and cooking the meals.
"It depends on the skill level of the students how often the restaurant is open," Vingara said. "There is not set number each year."
"We don't advertise the restaurant being open, but parents come and sometimes people are here for events," he added. "The curriculum is set in stone for the program, and we use the restaurant to enhance it."
Matrobattista said they host banquets and other events in the restaurant, but also sprinkle in several al la carte afternoons, which revolve around specific cooking techniques they have recently learned.
On Feb. 9, guests enjoyed California sushi rolls, braised apple cider chicken and grilled strip steak, among other dishes. Matrobattista said the students had just enjoyed a demonstration from Wegman's chefs on how to cook sushi.
"So we went further with that, and brought the ingredients here," he said. "We try to bring in local businesses to do demonstrations."
And money from the al la carte days goes into the culinary arts account and right back into the school itself.
Vingara said the program brings in many students, some of whom might be looking for a field in the culinary arts, while others are just exploring options.
"You are asking 14-year-olds to make a decision, but this is a career exploration for many," he said. "They may all have a certain impression, and then they see that this program is not home ec. There are time limits, homework, everything."
But for the students, Vingara said, they are learning a trade, and many different skills.
"It is about teamwork, motivation and a sense of work ethic," he said. "They are not just making a recipe. Anyone can follow directions, but the other three pieces are the most important."