FVCC’s Chefs Table

By Beacon Staff

This is not a review of the food I was served at Flathead Valley Community College’s “Chefs Table,” a weekly offering of the culinary program at the school.

That, in itself, may disappoint some or all of the 10 students who took part in this important exercise. Food reviews are reserved for professional restaurants. When these students become professionals, then they will be reviewed – if not in the newspaper, then at the cash register.

But let me tell you about the importance of an activity like this. Under the expert tutelage of Chef Howard Karp, these students are only in their second semester of the culinary program. They have barely begun to know how to wield a knife, let alone cook a three-course meal using classical technique, saucing and service.

This is an exercise I would have loved to have participated in when I was in school. Instead, our culinary program supplied baked goods and other sundries for the food service operations of the school. In other words, we were indentured servants, as the products of our instruction were sold on campus. At Flathead’s program, you dine in the kitchen where your food is prepared and you see almost every stage of its preparation and service. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a career in food than to prove your mettle in a restaurant setting.

Let me tell you that this is not the most comfortable seating arrangement, but if you have ever wanted to see what goes on behind the scenes in credible restaurant kitchens, this is worth many times more than the $38 cost of the ticket. It’s also fascinating to watch the enthusiasm the students demonstrate in attacking their assignment. They work in teams, one responsible for appetizers; one for the main course; and one for the dessert. They also create an “amuse bouche” (literally, to amuse the mouth, but figuratively, “a gift of the chef,” just a quick bite to get the taste buds working), and an intermezzo, a palate-cleansing sorbet in between the first and second courses.

Chef Karp chooses to teach his students classical French cooking style and that’s a very good thing. Most Western cuisines have a basis in this style and while the rigors of perfecting sauces are – well – rigorous, these skills will be a solid foundation for the careers these students will pursue. Their future employers will see many benefits as a result of this style of education.

So let me tell you what we ate: during the get-acquainted time, before we were seated, we were served three small bites: a salmon and gruyere waffle; a cucumber topped with date and walnut relish; and a ceramic spoon filled with couscous, red bell pepper bits, chick peas and feta cheese.

The amuse bouche was a riff on a classic Asian style dish called rumaki, which usually is a bacon-wrapped water chestnut with chicken liver, marinated in soy. Instead of chicken liver, the students chose to use duck confit, which is duck leg meat cooked slowly in its own fat. The rumaki was on top of cold soba noodles. And this was a very good start to a very tasty evening.

The first course was Shrimp de Joghne, served atop creamy polenta dressed with truffle oil. The intermezzo was a pomegranate sorbet with a balsamic reduction. The main course was a beautifully grilled Montana angus Chateaubriand (tenderloin) with a well-made béarnaise combined with glace de viande and a vegetable-stuffed tomato. Dessert was the classic strawberries Romanoff accompanied by three varieties of cookies.

That’s a lot of food for thirty-eight bucks. Chef Karp narrated the evening so that all of the diners knew what each dish contained and how it was prepared. At the end of the meal, we were introduced to each of the 10 students who then received a well-deserved round of applause.

But there was one important error of omission. The most important guy in the kitchen never got the acknowledgement he deserved, so here’s a shout out to the young man who was the dish washer. As those of us who’ve worked in restaurants know very well, if the dish washer doesn’t show up, we can’t open.

I did make food critic-style notes and, as a former culinary instructor myself, I’ll share them with Chef Karp. He’ll want to know, chef-to-chef, instructor-to-instructor from an objective diner (I was invited to be a guest of the class, but I bought my own ticket) what I thought about his students’ performances. But that will remain between him and me.

Finally, I will venture a guess that these meals will get better and better as the semester progresses, and so I highly recommend that you give the FVCC Chefs Table a try. There will be one each Friday night through the end of the semester, with the exception of April 10.