TAMPA — It's just about the most exclusive dining room in town. The establishment serves just 75 lucky diners each week: 25 people per meal service, Wednesday and Thursday at noon for lunch and Thursday at 7 p.m. for dinner. And here's the kicker: The three-course prix-fixe meal is only $7.
If you're paying attention, you'll see those in the know strolling across the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College and zipping into the first floor of the Humanities Building. The Gourmet Room is a lab of sorts, a hands-on class for students enrolled in culinary management, dietary tech, restaurant management or hospitality and tourism management.
"Ten years ago we were doing very basic things: meatloaf and so forth," says Fred Jaeger, program manager for the hospitality department. "But we started setting the bar higher and higher."
That bar, says Elizabeth Johnson, dean of the associate in science program, has moved as students have gotten more sophisticated about food. It's a trend she attributes to the rise of the Food Network and shows like Chopped. For the 2014-15 school year, HCC had 309 students in these programs, all of whom spend some time in the Gourmet Room.
And so did I. At the end of October I stopped in for lunch. Some semesters they've focused on American regional cooking, others on classical French. This semester it's a globe-trotting affair, each week bringing a new cuisine. I lucked out with Spain: First course was a hearty bowl of black bean soup and a refreshing lettuce, citrus and onion salad; next came a generous plate of rice cradling slow-simmered ropa vieja and a passel of sweet-tangy fried plantains; for dessert, a velvety toffee flan. All told, a laudable interpretation of the cuisine (and an absolute steal for $7).
Oil paintings from artists in the community line the walls (right now it's the work of landscape painter Joanna Karpay), the tables set formally by a service team overseen by Steve Gagnon, who teaches dining room management.
Students arrive at 9 a.m., spend an hour in lecture and then go about their assigned tasks in the kitchen or dining room. Then it's show time. The dining room fills — and there's nothing training-wheels about it. Customers give feedback on the day's dishes, and after the last guest has paid the check, it's time for debriefing: What did we get right? And what could be improved upon?
If anything is subpar, it can't be attributed to a lack of equipment. The gargantuan kitchen gleams with endless rows of stainless steel countertops and swoon-worthy gadgets.
"We've spent a lot of money making sure the kitchen has the latest and greatest," Jaeger says. "It's so they're prepared to go out there."
And they do go out there. Culinary students complete five internships before graduation, working in local properties ranging from the Saddlebrook Resort to Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, Meals on Wheels and a number of prestigious independent restaurants. These internships are the work of coordinator Deena Sweet.
"I'm a matchmaker. I ask the students lots of questions and tweak their cover letters and resumes, and then place them with event venues, caterers, white-tablecloth restaurants and even food shows."
According to Jaeger, the Tampa Bay area is an ideal place for culinary and hospitality students to gain experience, choosing from the gamut from cruise ships to country clubs, mom and pops, stadiums and sports venues, casinos and resorts. It's experience that pays dividends for diners at the Gourmet Room.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.