Each winter and spring, the Cascade Culinary Institute at Central Oregon Community College offers hands-on classes where students learn how to run the Elevation restaurant located on campus. Since last spring, when schools closed and the restaurant lockdown/restrictions began, Elevation has not been able to open as it has in the past. Still, the culinary program leaders have developed creative solutions to hold classes and partially open the restaurant.
The public-interfacing experience is essential to accreditation at the Institute. I spoke with the new chair of the culinary program, Wayne Yeatman, who started in fall 2020 when Thor Erickson completed his four years in the position.
Culinary classes during a pandemic
Yeatman told me that along with designing a remote learning curriculum, they were facing losing students in the program. Those students who came straight from high school no longer had a place to live as the residence halls have been closed. At the same time, the Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland permanently closed after the initial shutdown. With new openings in the culinary program, Yeatman and others worked with the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to create a new path for some Oregon Culinary Institute students to join the culinary program in Bend.
Yeatman and the other chef instructors had to quickly design remote learning for lab classes. They did their best to create an equitable learning experience for students who now had to cook in their home kitchens and procure their own food for the assignments. Students would be required to take photos to document the process of cooking a dish for the instructors to evaluate.
The remote classes were challenging for Jason Haugen, a dual-major student in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts. Haugen spoke with me about his difficulties, “When the pandemic first started, I was living in a travel trailer. Trying to figure out how to cook stuff and baking was impossible. So I had to borrow kitchens from classmates and friends. “Plus … baking … we had to find ingredients. Everybody in the country wanted to make bread at the same time, so trying to find flour or anything was horrible.”
Second-year student Lacey Kloster has missed the interaction with instructors while preparing her assignments. A vegan, Kloster is challenged when working with meat .
“I pay for instructor guidance, and when along the way I’m supposed to be butchering a chicken, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing’ and he’s not there to help show me, it can be frustrating.”
Both Kloster and Haugen lamented that remote learning didn’t allow for instructors’ feedback on how the food tasted. They needed to rely on their friends to critique the food. Still, it wasn’t the same as having guidance and advice from the program’s chefs.
In-person classes restarted in the fall. Labs that typically had 25 students were reduced to 10 or less to accommodate social distancing. While it’s better than remote learning, both students discussed that the smaller class sizes are disappointing. Kloster bemoaned, “One of the biggest bummers is that the culinary program is usually a cohort of students who go through the whole program together. The program shrunk. I miss them. Right now, it’s mostly older students — people that are going for a second career. The younger students add a fun outlook.”
Haugen was also disappointed to not have the whole community together at school, “The college experience is not just the learning part. You’re interacting and building connections and whatever else.”
Cooking and serving the public in a working restaurant environment is the culmination of what students have learned in the program. The winter classes have changed over the years. I remember the first time that I had one of the student prepared and served lunches. It was in a large classroom-like cafeteria with large round tables and cafeteria dishes and utensils.
Now, students learn in the elegantly designed Elevation restaurant. Two classes are offered. One gives cooks experience in a working restaurant kitchen. The second class teaches students how to run and work the front-of-house— how to host, serve, clear, serve wine and deal with customers in an upscale setting.
With indoor dining closed due to the pandemic shutdown, this winter term culinary instructors faced new challenges. Elevation could not open to dine-in customers, and the culinary and hospitality management students still needed the hands-on public interfacing experience. They came up with a two-part solution. On Thursdays, they would serve other students for the dine-in experience. On Fridays, they would follow the lead of other restaurants to offer takeout. The public would not need to enter the restaurant. Customers could pick up their food from a food truck that the college program acquired last year for a proposed food truck class.
On a recent Friday, I called to place my order. An awkward yet efficient young man answered my call. We got two lunches. One starter was a roasted mushroom and wild rice soup. The cup of soup was filled with chanterelle mushrooms, vegetables, and great flavor, but I could not find any rice. Perhaps this was the end of the soup pot.
The other starter we chose was patatas bravas. Cubed potatoes were crunchy on the outside, soft and tender within. The potatoes are mixed with quartered chunks of chorizo sausage cooked to an almost tender jerky-like consistency that eliminated its usual greasiness. The chorizo complemented a small drizzle of smoked paprika aioli and a sprinkling of Manchego cheese. All flavors worked together for a hint at the dish’s Spanish roots.
One entree was the Chicago beef sandwich. Beef is stuffed into a large hoagie roll with a crunchy crust. It was topped with gardinera — pickled cauliflower, carrots, red pepper, and green olives — that gave it an almost Muffaletta flavor. It’s served with an au jus dip that tasted great with the sandwich but made it a bit of a challenge to keep the veggies on top while we dipped. A side of a basic herbed potato salad comes with the sandwich.
We also tried the “Kentucky Hot Brown.” Roasted turkey and thick house-cured bacon are piled high on a small piece of Texas toast. It’s then topped with a Mornay cheese sauce. This is a sandwich you really want to eat as soon as you pick it up to get all of the nuances of flavors playing against each other. It’s served with a delicious “southern slaw” with hints of onion mixed with the shredded cabbage in a well-balanced amount of creamy dressing.
Dessert was a chocolate Nanaimo bar cut into two triangles and served with raspberries, blueberries and a dollop of whipped cream. The velvety chocolate had a slight crunch and was sweet but not too rich.
Most years, there is a class in dinner service during the spring term. The staff will decide by the end of March about the possibility of outside service if indoor seating is still restricted. Until then, Elevations will serve lunch on Fridays until the end of the winter quarter.