At Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, Valentine's is served

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 15, 2013 

It was a busy but easygoing atmosphere Thursday afternoon in the teaching kitchen and caf at the Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick.

Students were cutting up mushrooms and vegetables, making "shooter" desserts and preparing chicken for the fourth course in the Valentine's Day dinner they planned.

Several other students were readying the dining room for the night's 77 guests, folding napkins, placing glasses and gently laying rose petals to float in vases of water.

LuAnne Wiles, the vocational school's culinary arts instructor, even let them have a radio playing as they worked, an indulgence she said they'd earned.

"I'm glad they're relaxed," she said. "They're going to feel (the pressure) tonight."

Thursday night's meal was the first of two student-led dinners this year for Tri-Tech's culinary arts program. It's the largest student-led dinner Tri-Tech has offered and the first time one has sold out in years. The guests, mostly the students' friends and family, paid $20 a plate.

But the event was more than an opportunity for the program's 36 students to practice their cooking skills, require them to make plans and then come up with backup strategy as any chef in a restaurant kitchen has to when things don't go as expected.

"We haven't slept in 72 hours," said Kyle Bitters, a Richland High School senior and one of three second-year culinary students overseeing the dinner.

Students hail from all three districts in the Tri-Cities, as well as Burbank and Prosser. Wiles, who is in her first year teaching, said the dinner truly is a student-run event, with her providing only guidance. They're responsible for planning the menu, getting the ingredients, cooking everything, as well as waiting on their guests.

This wasn't some basic meal with an appetizer, entre and dessert. The menu was a five-course affair, six if you include the starter of emmer wheat pretzels and taro chips with quince mustard dip.

The main course provided guests with five options, two of them vegetarian and one of them vegan. Individual menu items include flan made from Yukon Gold potatoes, horseradish with oysters and crme fraiche, with a roasted butternut squash soup.

Lyndsey Stankovich, a Hanford High School senior and first-year culinary student, said she had a hand in multiple parts of the meal, from preparing the flan to helping with tiramisu served for dessert.

"It's pretty stressful but it's worth it," she said. "At some point in life you have to learn to cook."

Maddie Bauer, a Kennewick High School senior and second-year culinary student, said she liked having more of a leadership role this year, not that it wasn't without its problems. The produce needed for the meal showed up days late, costing the students preparation time.

"We've had our bumps," she said.

Regardless, the students said they were glad to be in the kitchen. Bauer and Bitters said they want to pursue culinary arts as a career and saw their work in recent weeks as a means to that goal.

"This kind of almost puts you ahead of the game a bit," Bitters said.

Wiles was confident her students would pull it off, all while learning a hard lesson or two along the way.

"They lack a sense of urgency," she said as she watched them talking and joking as they worked. "They don't realize they have a deadline."

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