Every Wednesday afternoon this spring, for eight weeks, Berkshire Community College students in the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration programs gather in the Susan B. Anthony Center dining room to transform the cafeteria into an elegant restaurant for the night.
Students in the Dining Room Management class drape the tables with cloth tablecloths and napkins, and add accent pieces, like potted plants and photos and maybe videos shown on a screen, that coordinate with the night's cuisine theme. They also serve as dining room staff.
In the kitchen, students in the Kitchen Management class prep the food needed to create that night's dinner, under the supervision of the student head chef for the night.
For the head chef, it's not only a chance to run a restaurant kitchen for the first time, but a time to change a dream — and a final project from the previous class — into a reality.
According to Carleton Maaia, professor of Hospitality Sciences Management and department chairman, at the end of the second in a three-part series of culinary classes, students are asked to plan a themed dinner and menu as their final project. Eight students' themes and menus are selected by the instructor for inclusion in the dinner series. When a student's theme and menu is the featured one, he or she is the head chef for that night.
"It's the culmination of all their classes," Maaia said. "Like a final project."
This week's dinner, the creation of Melissa Pyetranker of Pittsfield, is "An Evening in Paris."
"I wanted to do the hardest menu possible," Pyetranker said. "French cooking uses hard and intricate techniques."
Her French-inspired menu includes mini French onion tartlets for an appetizer, French onion soup, classic French baguette, a choice of beef bourguignon over buttered noodles or Coquille St. Jacques (scallops in a creamy sauce), and raspberry brulee.
She said at 2 p.m. — a little over four hours before serving the 100 expected diners — she will call together all the culinary students and delegate what tasks and dishes they will be doing.
"We work under time constraints and learn how to work under pressure, so everyone can be served a hot meal on time," she said, adding she was very confident she and her staff would succeed.
Now in the final days of her last semester at BCC, Pyetranker hopes to continue her culinary studies at the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston and eventually open a catering business.
Maaia said this is the 39th year the dinner series has been held.
"Ed Dougherty began it in 1977, when BCC offered a program in hotel and restaurant management," Maaia said. " It was a two-year program, after which students would transfer to the University of Massachusetts to earn their degree. Now, after the program at BCC, students receive a certificate in culinary arts."
He added that when he joined the faculty at BCC as a cooking instructor in 1978, the dinner series was offered twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Paul and Preciosa Krause of Richmond are longtime patrons of the dinner series, having attended almost all of them for the 39 years they have been offered.
"It's a real home run," Paul, a retired educator who taught at Pittsfield and Taconic high schools. "You're supporting local students and get a good meal. It's a good night out."
He added that he and his wife, also a retired teacher from Pittsfield High School, were first introduced to the dinner series when he was teaching at BCC.
"The evening ends with all the participating students coming out [to the dining room]. You see such pride and how fond they are of the program and the instructors," he said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful experience."
Upcoming dinners include Seaside Bistro on April 13, Island Cruise on April 27, and, due to their popularity, two dinners featuring prime rib — Prime & Dine on May 4 and Prime Country on May 11.
Each dinner includes an appetizer, salad or soup, entree, vegetable, bread, dessert, soda, coffee, tea and a complimentary glass of wine — all for the price of $25 for adults, $18 for high school and middle school students and $12 for children 10 and under.
This year's series is completely sold out and has people on a waiting list, Maaia said.
"We sent out the announcement to people on our mailing list, and the reservations were sold out within a couple of hours," he said.
To be included on the mailing list for next years's dinners, contact Sharon Aleksa at 413-236-2106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.