Make us your home page

HCC Gourmet Room offers a meal deal for the public and lessons for culinary students

Sous chef Malka Madkholkar instructs students in the kitchen of Hillsborough Community College’s Gourmet Room.

Courtesy of HCC

Sous chef Malka Madkholkar instructs students in the kitchen of Hillsborough Community College’s Gourmet Room.

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 or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

HCC Gourmet Room offers a meal deal for the public and lessons for culinary students 11/16/15 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2015 9:56am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for May 28


    Alabama: The country music all-timers hit the road for the Southern Drawl tour with openers, the Charlie Daniels Band. 7 p.m., Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $26-$86. (813) 301-2500.

    Handout photo of Alabama, performing 5/28/17 at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Credit: Alan Messer
  2. Find serenity at Grand Cayman Island's Cemetery Beach



    Hey, cruisers, if you've been to Hell and back, snuggled with the stingrays and taken photos with the turtles at the Cayman Turtle Centre, you might be looking for something different on your next trip. (Guilty!)

    Good snorkeling can be found off shore at Cemetery Beach in Grand Cayman.
  3. Karen Bail, who helped Gibbs kids get to Broadway, retires


    ST. PETERSBURG — When neatnicks retire, they leave no trace behind. Their desks are clean, like a runway after the plane has taken off.

    Karen Bail warms up seniors Jonathan O’Brien, left, as Juan Peron and Addam Setzer as Che Guevara before the dress rehearsal of Evita in April.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for May 27


    Tampa Bay Margarita Festival: The Barenaked Ladies will headline this festival with opener Cowboy Mouth. Enjoy more than 50 varieties of margarita drinks including a Sriracha strawberry, a bacon rita and even a jalapeno Cabo rita. There's beer and vodka for the non-tequila drinkers. Noon, Curtis Hixon Park, 600 N …

  5. A forgotten ballad from The Princess Bride? Inconceivable!


    As we wrap up May Movie Month on Lost and Found, we seek the perfect ride-off-in-the-sunset movie song.  For those who love storybook endings, perhaps your favorite '80s movie is The Princess Bride. Would you like to see the video for that perfect ending of a Storybook Love? As you wish.