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The dining room of the Chef's Palette Cafe & Grill looks much like any high-end restaurant. A hostess stand sits at the entrance. Formal place settings, replete with bread plates, salad, and dinner forks on the left, crisp white triangular folded napkins in the middle, two knives to the right, dessert fork and spoon atop, and water goblet just off to the side, sit on each tabletop. Pristine black tablecloths gently drape over wood-framed chairs with deep-red upholstered seatbacks and cushions.
Although the space itself seems intimate enough, there is more of a buzz in the air than you would find at most formal spots. Windows exposing classrooms and kitchens surround the room. Students excitedly pass back and forth from room to room wearing bright-white chef's coats, often carrying with them books and the occasional cake or baked good.
Part of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, the Chef's Palette is a student-run restaurant. As a six-credit class usually taken during an undergrad's last semester, the restaurant gives future chefs hands-on training in the real-time workings of a live restaurant. During the ten-week course, students take turns operating the front and back of house for paying customers, spending half of the time in each area with a role that changes daily.
It's a diverse group running around, with cooks ranging in age, ethnicity, and background — from a 29-year-old woman who is a practicing attorney from New York to a soft-spoken 19-year-old man who dreams of working in European kitchens. Through the glass, chef instructor Dustin Gordon can be seen working with the students in the restaurant's kitchen. At 37, with the exception of his tall pleated toque blanche — which indicates higher rank than the floppy white hats donned by students — Gordon could easily be mistaken for one of his pupils.
The class operates three days a week. Wednesdays are used for setting the dining room, prepping, and receiving food. Thursdays and Fridays, the restaurant is open to the public from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and again from 6 to 8 p.m.
Another glaring difference from your typical high-end eatery is the price tag. For $14.99 for lunch, $19.99 for dinner, guests get three courses with around five appetizers, four entrées, and three desserts from which to choose. Beverages range from organic iced green citrus tea ($2.50) to Pellegrino ($4) to beers, mimosas, and wines by the bottle or glass (ranging from a $6 glass of DeLoach Chardonnay to a $30 bottle of Meiomi pinot noir). You're dining on a meal prepared by students, after all, but students being groomed to work in the finest restaurants.
While student input is always encouraged, Gordon decides the menu, making sure to employ a number of cooking techniques, flavors, and ingredients. On every menu, which changes each semester, different dishes employ braised, grilled, pan-seared, or poached elements to ensure the students gain as much experience as possible.
John Noble Masi oversees the class and the program. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where his father taught for 30 years, his goal is to ensure that students are prepared to move into the culinary world.
"Our biggest thing is education," Masi says. "We focus on international cuisines and ingredients, incorporating food from 38 different countries. We want them to master the French methods."
This semester, the local heirloom tomato, grilled artichoke, and haricot vert salad is served with crispy poached egg and lemon vinaigrette, using both frying and poaching techniques. The egg is covered with a crunchy layer of breading that encases a smooth, soft white and creamy yolk that oozes out when pierced with a fork for a rich and velvety contrast to the fresh bright flavors of the vegetables and bitter frisee.
Entrées include a pan-seared Florida's fresh local catch, snapper for the day. The fish was presented atop a briny broth with littleneck clams, wild mushrooms, al dente broccolini, and Asian ponzu vinaigrette: slightly salty and full of flavor.
Before bringing out dessert, the student servers removed the salt and pepper from the table and repositioned the dessert utensils — a traditional form of service rarely found these days. In addition to a warm chocolate cake and poached tropical fruit with coconut ice cream, hazelnut tuille, and kaffir lime syrup, fresh baked apples were offered for dessert. Dished out in a clear collins glass with layers of vanilla ice cream, salted caramel, and amaretto crumble topped with an intricate delicate sugar glass, it was more aesthetically pleasing than the majority of pastries found in restaurant kitchens.
With high-end food, attentive service, and minimal price tag, it's kind of hard to beat the experience — as long as you don't mind some action while you dine.
The Art Institute's Chef's Palette Cafe & Grill is located at 1650 SE 17th St. in Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-760-7957 for reservations. Visit artinstitutes.edu.