TAMPA - It often is said there's no such thing as a free lunch. But there are some inexpensive lunches - and dinners, too - served at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Tampa.
The Tutored Chef, staffed by students in the final quarters of the culinary programs, handle kitchen duties as well as front-of-house hospitality under the supervision of the chef faculty.
The little-known "affordable fine dining" restaurant offers salads, appetizers, soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts.
The $5 appetizers for the quarter that just ended included lobster mac & cheese made with homemade Mornay sauce topped with lobster meat and truffle oil; fried green tomatoes topped with blue-crab lump sauce; and hummus with warm pita, olive oil and ground spices.
The $6 sandwiches and entrees include grilled vegetable panini; flat-iron steak topped with a mushroom demi-glace and home-cut fries; and pan-seared chicken with chive whipped potatoes, green beans and spicy glazed carrots. Also, salmon, lightly seared cabbage and sweet potato puree.
Topping it all off, the $5 dessert selections: fresh fruit sorbet or banana bread pudding.
Chef Clyde R. Tanner, academic director of the culinary program since transferring nine months ago from San Bernardino, Calif., said the program draws students from Gainesville to Sarasota and beyond, partly because of the area's "ton of hospitality jobs" and proximity to Walt Disney World.
"They learn the fundamental skills of cuisine, then they take those skills and apply it to the international flavor profiles" that include the European classics like Italian and French, plus Asian, American regional and world-class flavors such as African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisines, Tanner said.
After completing the program, the average culinary student can make everything from a cake to fine dining entrees and quick-service foods, he said.
"Our goals and objectives here are to produce students for their first entry-level job," he said. "This accelerates their career probably three to five years," reducing on-the-job training from two or three years to six months.
"After they've learned all the skills they put them into practice before they go into the industry," and that's where the chef-guided, student-run restaurant comes in, he said.
The Tutored Chef relies upon word of mouth to advertise its limited hours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The restaurant is closed when classes are not in session. The menu changes with every 10-week quarter.
The Tutored Chef is open to the public, and customers include students' friends and family, workers in the Tampa Bay Park complex where the school is located and members of professional organizations and clubs. Reservations are suggested, but not necessary.
At 11:30 on a recent Wednesday morning, the large kitchen, clearly visible through a window in the dining room, was abuzz with activity as nine chefs prepared lunch.
The kitchen crew included 25-year-old Phillip Meredith, operating the french-fry machine, a device capable of reducing a large potato into a dozen thick-cut fries with one slam of a lever.
"I want to open my own barbecue restaurant eventually," said the Georgia student. When not attending culinary classes he works for a local catering business.
Whether in a certificate or diploma program, or working for a culinary management bachelor's degree, most students at the accredited school, a branch of Miami International University of Art & Design, seek and find employment in Florida after completing training, Tanner said.
Students come from various backgrounds - from professionals wanting to open a restaurant after retirement to health care workers seeking a second career, he said. More traditional students are recent high school grads, and classes are roughly a 50/50 mix of men and women, Tanner said.