Hometown U: Lucy's at UAA: the culinary school's laboratory restaurant

Kathleen McCoy
Philip Hall

The doors open for lunch at 11:30. In the dining room, servers in crisp black, tables in crisp white, formal place settings and the clink of ice in tall tea glasses all spell a tony, fine-dining experience.

Back in the kitchen, though, you could fillet the tension with a chef's knife.

Seven culinary students -- in kitchen whites with hair tucked into second-year black caps -- stand pink-cheeked and sweaty-palmed beside their assigned cooking stations. Range hoods, dishwashers, refrigerators and ice machines hum a steady central-kitchen Muzak.

This is opening day for the semester at Lucy's, a restaurant lab run by UAA's culinary school to teach budding chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers the athletic ballet of split-second cooking, plating and presentation to paying customers.

Today's entrees, salads and desserts are the handiwork of students. The first week of class, they dreamed of the ideal: cutting gorgeous photos from food-porn magazines, bringing mom's classic in for an update, or crafting their own recipes. Alongside professional chefs, they sorted and paired, priced and dismissed, tasted and tweaked dozens of recipes until they had their list of dishes -- Lucy's menu today.

Now they stand ready to deep-fry, grill, sauté and plate their offerings -- from stuffed soft-shell crab teetering atop a ribbon Thai salad, to lime-and-cilantro grilled shrimp nestled in warm corn tortillas, to risotto croquettes trimmed in speck (bacon), pan-fried and served with spicy sauces. And that's just three of a dozen items they must deliver in minutes upon customer demand.

Does it sound like the dining car left the station with no one driving? Not so. Between the newbies and the expectant diners stand three culinary pros, able to apply years of experience to everything from tuning a recipe to dressing a plate to calming a crank.

For those "working the line," their ally, muse, drill sergeant, Little League coach and traffic controller, Chef Naomi Everett, stations herself opposite them across a shiny metal counter.

"Look at me. Look at me. LOOK AT ME!" she barks till she sees their eyes. Rapid-fire orders like "I need a fire on a leek and mushroom tart coming up with a soft shell crab...." get punctuated with a loud, "Ya heard?" to which all cooks in earshot must blast "Heard!"

Everett has worn the executive toque for Marx Bros., Settlers Bay Lodge and remote gold-mining companies. She and her sister run their own catering company and consult for restaurants. Together she and her student team will stare down the intensity of opening day at Lucy's.

Out in the dining room, hospitality professor Amy Green hovers within earshot as new servers remember (or don't) to mention daily specials or grapple with the equivalent of Jack Nicholson's order from "Five Easy Pieces." (He wants dry toast, so he orders a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, hold the mayo, hold the chicken, hold the lettuce and butter.)

Green has run front-of-house for boutique eateries in food savvy San Francisco. By semester's end, her charges know the answer to every gluten-sensitive, "Please-hold-the-X," "Can I substitute Y for Z?" question in the playbook.

So, what can happen when students do the cooking?

Caroline Kardell graduates in May, having survived Chef Vern Wolfram's 7 a.m. bakery class as well as the pressure of Everett's "line." Mention of opening-day stressors brings back her worst moment.

"I sent someone a raw Cornish game hen," she says, scrunching her face in horror. Rushing to meet orders, she'd skipped the cardinal rule, "temp your product!"

Yes, it happens. But when it does, chefs seize the teachable moment. "Chef Naomi opened it up, saw it was raw, and shouted: 'Caroline! We need a refire on the Cornish game hen!' "

Kardell says she'll never forget to "temp" again.

Everett tells them, "Look, this is how it is. We have guests out there paying for food. They don't care if you're in the weeds back here. So let's figure it out!"

At the front of the house, where novices wield heavy trays and meet customers face to face, Green intervenes in rough moments.

"There's tears. Meltdowns. But that's all part of the learning process," Green says. "We're practicing."

So, when something does go wrong, the crew recooks, replaces or offers a coupon for a return visit. "We want everyone to be happy here," Green says.

What's in it for customers? Modestly priced and eclectic menus you won't find anywhere else in town. Campus parking vouchers. A $5 dessert buffet every Friday.

Foodies know the drill; opening day draws regulars, ready to sample another new menu.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U