Tucked beneath descriptions of whole sizzling catfish and roast rack of lamb is an unusual offering on the menu of Little Italy’s Atelier de Culinaire: the staff is also for sale.
Culinary students wait tables, make the gazpacho and cure salmon at the Mediterranean restaurant with international flair now owned by Stratford University. The school took over the space, formerly Persian restaurant Ozra, six weeks ago and tested the concept with a reservation-only soft opening before the planned launch on Aug. 4.
The dining room is unchanged from its Ozra days; diners may hardly notice that their meal is meant to provide students with hands-on experience and ultimately help them land jobs.
“The name of the restaurant is Atelier de Culinaire. It means ‘cook’s workshop.’ It should be an art in the making,” said Raimund Hofmeister, director of the university’s culinary arts and hospitality management programs . “All the skills they are learning they should be displayed in the atelier.”
Hofmeister hopes the opportunity, just blocks from the school, will make it easy for his students to complete the 135-hour externship required during the 2-year culinary arts program. Currently, students work at other Baltimore restaurants, which can pose transportation issues and make it hard to monitor the quality of the experience, said Hofmeister, who lives in Cockeysville.
Although the externship lasts five weeks, students at any level of study are encouraged to put as many hours into the restaurant as they can.
“You don’t learn the business in two years in school. You learn it years after, while you’re progressing your career. Going into a well-established operation is more important going out there and trying to hit the money right away,” said Hofmeister, who is a Certified Master Chef.
Hofmeister stresses the importance of good teachers and chefs who can open doors for their students. At Atelier de Culinaire, executive chef Thomas Pons considers himself a coach.
“My love of this is how to build championship teams. Some teams are championships and some are ‘eh, we made our service tonight.’ This is the playing field. It’s the people that come into the building that make the difference,” said Pons, 54, who lives in the Patterson Park neighborhood.
The restaurant poses another unique opportunity for Pons: He and his students can work with exceptionally high-quality ingredients without the pressure to make a lot of money.
“For me, to come into an opportunity like this is incredible because I’m basically subsidized. They’re giving me incredible products that I normally wouldn’t work with,” he said. “I get the opportunity to provide that to my guests at considerable savings.”
The Atelier’s entrees include wasabi-and-ginger-crusted wild salmon ($20) and the Marylander’s Best Duet: an Angus filet steak and crab cake for $32. The menu also features several house-made desserts like chocolate tiramisu ($10) and opera cake ($8).
Students will cycle through the hot, cold and pastry stations in the back of the house before trying their hand in the front. Dan McQuay, the restaurant’s general manger, is used to working with high school staff who have no training.
“Having some students that have been through the hospitality program over there and already have a good sense of how things go, it’s a lot more little details than overall instruction,” said McQuay, 30, who lives in Pasadena.
Currently, the 100-seat restaurant with an upstairs patio is open for dinner service, reservations and special events. The leadership team plans to add Sunday brunch on Aug. 12 and lunch service later this year. It takes 12 students to run the restaurant, along with the only paid employees: the head chef, general manger, bartender and a professional cleaning service.
Hofmeister said the culinary neighbors have been supportive of his mission at 806 Stiles St. and are happy to see students around.
“It’s a real good feeling when you walk down the street in the morning and you see all the restaurateurs going to the bank and they say hi to you,” he said.
Roughly 300 students are enrolled in Stratford. About 100 are split between the pastry and hospitality programs, but most, like senior Tyshawna Jones, are studying culinary arts.
“I love food, so I just figured I should take it to another level and learn more about it in terms of the cooking skills and knowledge of food,” the 26-year-old Cylburn resident said. “I have a lot of cooks in my family – not chefs – but great cooks, and they inspired me as well.”
Jones has already served as the garde manger — the chef in charge of cold dishes — during one of the restaurant’s soft opening nights. She prepared cold lobster stew.
“My end goal is to be a personal chef, but until then I’m just going to work my way up, get more experience, gain more skills and knowledge as I go along,” she said.
Hofmeister sees promise in Jones. He said her willingness to take ownership is a trait he hopes the restaurant cultivates in all students.
“She can follow instructions very well, and then she pushes you aside if she wants to do it herself. That’s a good sign,” he said. “You step back and you watch, and it’s coming pretty close to what she was shown, only a few corrections.”
The menu doesn’t go easy on the budding chefs, either. The students will cure their own fish and make three different types of gazpacho each night. And when the dishes become routine, Pons and Hofmeister will switch it up.
“It’s easy to reprint this,” said Hofmeister, holding the 17-item paper dinner menu.
The restaurant is not only meant to teach the art of cooking, but also the art of professionalism — and just plain showing up.
“A commitment is a commitment. This is eventually what makes you or what breaks you in the road to success,” Hofmeister said. “We try to stress to our students the importance of a good attitude because that’s what makes you a winner.”
In time, students will take on bigger responsibilities at the restaurant, even developing new menu items. Freshman Tiyee Jones, who is not related to Tyshawna Jones, hopes to get some experience under her belt at school and then put it to the test. The 22-year-old wants to own her own restaurant someday.
“First opportunity, why not jump on it?” the Westport resident said. “You’re learning from an executive chef that’s been doing this for years. I just want to learn more things almost every day, so I’d take the opportunity to do it.”