When the Students Run the Restaurant

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hilltopper observingST. JOHNSBURY - The Hilltopper restaurant in St. Johnsbury is open once again, this time for the fall semester. After a two-week-long "soft open" in which the students served only Academy faculty, chef David Hale opened the restaurant's doors to the general public.

 

"It's exciting to put out great food every day," Hale said. "I've always loved that."

Hale's resume includes a stint as the executive chef at Auberge du Soleil, in Napa Valley, California. He was a founding board member of the Vermont Fresh Network and an instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, where he received a nearly perfect online rating. In his current gig at the Academy, Hale has the opportunity to oversee students as they develop their culinary skills.

The program is designed to ease students into complex cooking methods. The introductory class is an overview of cooking basics, while Culinary I introduces pastry and preparatory cooking, and Culinary II sees students stepping behind the line and producing a full lunch service. That's the exciting part - for some students, that's also the stressful part.

"It gets so busy and so flustered," said Kristen Goodine, an Academy student with two and a half years of culinary class under her belt. "You have the autumn vegetable hash dish, and you have three pans going at once just to prepare one dish, and that's not counting if you get any other orders on that station."

The restaurant itself has attracted a loyal following. As he looked out at the full dining room, Hale remarked that everybody in the restaurant was a regular.

"Oh, we come once a week, as long as they're open," said Mary-Em Saar, one of the regulars that Hale spoke of. "And then we go into a deep depression over the summer because they're not here."

"They do a good job," Saar added. "And then there's dessert, which you just can't pass up."

While patrons approve of the food coming out of the kitchen, Hale's focus is on the long haul. His background at NECI gives him a unique level of insight into what it takes to succeed at a college level, and he stressed that his students are ready to make that leap when they've finished at the Hilltopper.

"The deeper thrill is when a graduate comes back and says, 'This is what I'm doing,'" Hale said. "Or we get a call from a student who's at the Culinary Institute of America really doing well, and ahead of their classmates because of the work that they put in."

Goodine hopes to be one of those people calling Hale in the near future. "I want to open my own restaurant after college," she said, "so I'm hoping in five years I'll be starting that." She hopes to stay in Vermont, and she said she's been experimenting with her own recipes.

Hale encourages that sort of creativity - and even puts in on the menu. The Hilltopper has three separate menus during the year. They're currently running an "American Diner"-inspired menu, but Hale mentioned that at some point during the semester they'll be shifting to a Mediterranean menu featuring lamb shanks, polenta and other foreign favorites.

But the most exciting part of the semester, at least for students, is the Specialties menu, which will come in toward the end of the semester. That menu is created entirely by students.

"I'm just trying to make sure the flavors are really explosive," Goodine said. "I don't want to make, like... chicken and salsa."

Hale, who's been in his position for years, has seen just about everything in that time. He said it would be impossible to pick a favorite, but he did share a story about last year's class.

"Phenomenal," he said. "I mean, I get emotional talking about those guys. They worked really well as professionals, you know, we had a lot of tragedy last year, one of our teachers was murdered. These guys got together and they said we want all of our tip money - which normally goes toward a dinner, at the end of the year - all of their tip money went towards the Melissa Jenkins fund for her son."

"So when young people are making decisions and making choices that are for the better of others," Hale said, "that's when I know that we're doing the right thing."