North Adams — On select Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can get a table at one of Berkshire County's best kept culinary secrets — the lunch menu features fresh salads, delicious sandwiches and savory entrees for criminally low prices with attentive service and hot, homemade rolls on every table.
No, it isn't one of the county's celebrity chefs behind the food line pushing out hot plates of chicken Parmesan, southwestern chicken soup or a flaky, crusted baked cod. It's 16- and 17-year-old high school students.
"Order up!" yells Dayna Shaw, a 16-year-old McCann Technical School junior who is working the hot line during the Thursday lunch at the school's Tea Room. "I need a chicken parm and a flat bread salad!"
Shaw is one of the 30 sophomores and juniors working and learning at the culinary program's Tea Room — a fully functioning restaurant open to the public from 10:45 a.m. to noon twice a week for a few weeks out of each semester. To accommodate academic requirements, on alternating weeks, the kitchen and restaurant are filled with freshmen and seniors. The program, which began in 1961, accepts 60 students in total each year.
"The students are running everything," said Melissa King, one of the program's three chef instructors.
From the preparation, cooking, seating, service and handling of money, the Tea Room — conspicuously hidden behind a classroom door — is a real-life classroom for culinary students.
"It's a nice way to connect with the community," said Pat Cariddi, chef instructor, of the pop-up eatery, which seats up to 50. On average, he said, they serve 35 to 40 hungry patrons when they are open for lunch.
The menu changes three times a year, King said, to reflect what the students are learning during the semester — which is why the Tea Room is only open a few weeks out of each season, giving them time to learn and master new skills before feeding the masses. First they start with breakfast foods, serving brunch at the restaurant, then move up to sauces, soups and entree techniques, like learning to bread the chicken for the star dish on the fall menu.
"Breading can apply to an unlimited number of foods," said King, explaining how students learn specific dishes in stages. Next they will learn how to prepare foods for a buffet.
"It's a process, which is why we are closed for a while," Cariddi said.
But when they do open the Tea Room door, regulars can't help but follow the scent of fresh rolls and homemade marinara sauce wafting through the school's crowded halls.
When asked how often he eats at the student-run lunch spot, automotive instructor Jeremy Curley simply replied, "Whenever it's open, I'm here."
"The food is great," said Peter Hiser, also an automotive instructor at the school, sitting across from Curley while both slurped down the soup of the day. A sophomore on service politely slid up to the table, depositing a basket of warm rolls. Curley ordered the beef tacos — stuffed with the fixings for $5 — and Hiser the $7 chicken Parmesan.
"We're not in it to make money," said Cariddi. "We basically cover the cost of the food."
In the expansive professional kitchen — broken into three large rooms: the main kitchen, the bakery and the quantity food kitchen where students prepare and serve about 330 lunches to their peers every afternoon when the lunch bell rings — is humming with activity by 11 a.m. Students wearing white chef coats with their names embroidered on the chest work in teams around different stations and tables. Some sophomores, who aren't serving in the restaurant, are busy helping fulfill the orders of rolls and pies for faculty and staff who pre-ordered their goods for Thanksgiving.
Kiersten Thomann, a 16-year-old sophomore from North Adams, is making blueberry pies, methodically taking homemade dough and scooping thick blueberry filling into each pie plate. She was on track to make about 13 pies that morning, she said, as she delicately pressed the edges of the crust.
"It's nice knowing we're making food people are actually trying," said Thomann, who hopes to open her own restaurant one day. "It's time well spent."
For Shaw, who was commanding the hot entree station while offering up encouragement to fellow students working the line that morning, having people try her food can be frightening.
"It can be nerve-wracking — terrifying," she said with a nervous shrug. "But it's also cool to have people say how good [your food] was."
It's that positive reinforcement that chef instructor Kimberly Kaigle said she likes the most when working with the students.
"What's most rewarding is seeing the students say 'Wow, I can do that,'" she said, pointing out that before this week, most of the students had never made their own pie dough but were now baking dozens of pies.
Requiring students to learn multiple skills — from baking, cooking and front-of-house management — is an important part of their culinary education, said Cariddi.
"It's good for them to understand what a waiter goes through, or vice versa," he said. "They walk in everyone's shoes."
Sophomore Aliyha Eichorn, 16, waited on Tea Room customers, practicing the skills she learned — proper body language, how to talk to customers.
"We also have to serve with our left hand and clear with our right," she explained, while keeping a watchful eye on her tables. "Sometimes I get nervous, but it's super fun."
Eichorn, who wants to be a nurse one day, said her mom is always asking her to make food at home now, showing no matter what these students decide to do after high school they'll have a life-long skill useful in their everyday lives.
"If you can prepare your own meal, that's a big plus when you go off to college or the workforce," Kaigle said. "We also have some who do go off to culinary school — we have a good success rate with that, as well."
if you go
What: McCann Technical School Tea Room
Where: 70 Hodges Cross Road, North Adams. Guests must sign in at the principal's office.
When: Serving from 10:45 a.m. to noon on the following dates: Tuesday, Dec. 1, and Thursday, Dec. 3, brunch buffet; Tuesday, Dec. 8, and Thursday, Dec. 10, world buffets. Then closed until February, 2016.
For more information: Visit www.mccanntech.org/technical-majors/high-school/culinary-arts/