Milford culinary students learn cooking, restaurant management

MILFORD – It’s about 10:30 a.m. and Mikayla Gilcrest is sauteing collard greens and Mike Levin is not entirely satisfied.

“I like them crunchy and garlicy” he said, but the restaurant’s patrons often include older people, and some of them might like their greens softer and with a cream sauce, he said, showing Mikayla how to add the milk and adjust the heat on the big professional stove.

Mikayla is a junior in Milford High school’s culinary arts program, and Levin is her cooking teacher, and they are preparing the day’s lunch for the program’s restaurant, Windows on West Street.

In 45 minutes it will open for customers.

“Remember you control the heat. It doesn’t control you,” Levin tells his student before he moves to another burner to begin sauteing chicken breasts.

Over in the bakery section of the 3,200-square-foot kitchen, freshman Elizabeth Bonnot cuts fresh strawberries while Delila Alicea prepares scones.

“Just because the timer has gone off doesn’t mean it’s done,” cautions bakery teacher Cheryl Emerson to a group of students gathered around the oven.

The 60-seat lunch restaurant at 100 West St. Milford is run by the culinary arts students under the supervision of Levin, Emerson and Paul Joyce, who’s in charge of the “front of the house,” the dining room.

The restaurant is open Wednesdays through Fridays for an one hour a day, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and on this particular Thursday morning underclassmen in the B Block were doing prep work for sandwiches and entrees for a menu that includes pasta primavera, chicken hongroise and fish cakes, all served with salad, rolls, a starch and vegetables.

The three teachers have 85 students this semester, with 30 more next semester, when the restaurant will be open an extra day, on Tuesdays. The students are divided into three different blocks, with A-Block starting early in the morning, getting soups, breads, desserts and pastries started.

Next is B-Block, all underclassmen, set up the steam tables, get the vegetables started, set tables, load up cutlery trays in the dining room, fill the pastry cases and put garnishes in place. C-Block does everything, said Joyce, including wash dishes, wait tables and finish the cakes.

It’s not all hands-on. Students do classroom study of the principles and techniques of cooking and restaurant management on Mondays and Tuesday during the first semester and on Mondays the second semester.

And this year Milford has a new curriculum, called ProStart, from the National Restaurant Association, which means students who complete the program acquire a second-party certification that “gives them a step up,” said Levin, who is a new teacher, coming to Milford from Peabody (Mass.) High School where he taught culinary arts for 16 years. Peabody only has a coffee shop, however, not a full-service sit-down restaurant like this one.

The full curriculum includes everything from basic safety and sanitation, to making soups and stocks and sauces, to restaurant management, with all the underlying principles learned in an academic setting and then demonstrated in the kitchen.

“They read it, they see it,” before they do it, Levin said.

The ProStart program gives the students a “second party certification, which means they can work in a kitchen right out of high school or if they don’t go on for further schooling, but Levin said he takes it for granted that any student in the Milford program is headed for post-secondary education.

After he shows freshman Sydney Carter how to cut a lemon – “the knife goes against the knuckle” – she said she plans to take the program through her entire four years at Milford High and wants to own a restaurant some day.

Levin tells his student there is no better job during college than restaurant work because of its flexible hours and “where else can you walk out with money in your pocket and food in your belly?”

At 10:45 a.m. students in C Block head for the dressing room to change into their server uniforms – blue button-down shirts and neckties and khaki pants. Kathy Landry, a para-professional, checks to make sure they look clean, neat and professional.

The dining room has its own entrance and looks warm and inviting with wooden tables and chairs and lots of natural light. There’s a Cole Porter tune playing quietly in the background.

After Landry ties his tie for him, senior Christopher Lopez looks happy and ready to serve.

“I love the experience” of working here, he said, “We get to see what it’s like to run a restaurant.”

At 11 a.m., with only 10 minutes to go before the restaurant door opens, servers are standing ready, nearby glass bakery shelves are filled with cookies, tarts and biscotti.

Joyce passes by saying, “hands out of pockets and stand up straight.”

Soon four tables are full of people, one a party of five, another a party of six. Among the first customers are retired teachers Gail Basiliere and Lou Jackson, served by Chris Ballou.

Jackson has eaten here before and said she recommended it highly.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@