Howard County culinary students are breaking out the sparklers for possibly their last Gourmet Night ever, a dinner they're calling "The Last Hurrah."
The crowning moment of tomorrow night's dinner will be a "Fire and Ice" procession through the School of Technology's Great Expectations restaurant. Students dressed in tuxedos will bring out Baked Alaskas lighted with sparklers, place them in front of each patron and then set the desserts afire.
"It's the best one we're ever going to do, because it's the last one we're ever going to do," said Glenelg senior Zena Maggitti.
Under Howard County's new technology magnet program, much of the hands-on culinary training the students now receive at the school on Route 108 will be replaced by instruction that emphasizes all areas of the hospitality industry -- not just culinary or dining room service.
As a result, extracurricular activities, such as the monthly Gourmet Nights, may be cut.
Though the magnet system won't be under way until the 1996-1997 school year, it's uncertain what next year holds for the culinary students. Because the school won't be accepting any more students into the existing program, officials are unsure if they'll have the students necessary for events as elaborate as the current Gourmet Nights.
"We'll be busy developing the curriculum for the tech magnet system, and we don't know if after-school events like Gourmet Night will be possible," said Chef Elaine Heilman, one of the school's two culinary educators.
Held once a month October through April since 1988, Gourmet Night has been a chance for the students to show the public what they can do. Usually the students, who have spent two or three years in the program, scour through magazines and
cookbooks for recipes. Then, with the help of teacher-chefs, they put together a seven-course meal.
It's a time-consuming but democratic process with the students deciding which items blend the best, and which are creative yet practical.
For March's dinner, most of the students wanted to make a homemade watermelon sorbet. But Howard High junior Tommy Rubino wanted to know where they would get a watermelon in March. "Travel to Hawaii if you want," he said in exasperation. With a combined total of 33 years in the food industry, though, Chefs Heilman and John Johnson had their connections, and somehow watermelons were found.
This month's planning process will run a little smoother. Since it's the last dinner, chefs Heilman and Johnson designed the menu. "These are items we've worked on for awhile. It's a very ambitious menu for even the best of cooks to do," Chef Heilman remarked.
Tomorrow's dinner will begin with a nonalcoholic champagne and hors d'oeuvre reception in the school's lobby. The first course will be a bouillabaisse soup, followed by an appetizer of grilled vegetables in a tortilla cup with a roasted pepper sauce. Next, a carambola -- a tropical fruit -- sorbet will be served.
The entree is veal medallions with a rose petal sauce, black bean pasta and haricots verts -- miniature French green beans. A chiffonade of romaine with duck breast salad will be the last item served before the fire-and-ice dessert finale.
Last week, students traded street wear for chef's hats and jackets and headed into the school's stainless steel kitchen to experiment with the recipes and presentations. "We look at the recipes and say . . . 'How can we change them and make them better?' Then we can claim some ownership. You can't say that Gourmet Night is a bunch of recipes from a cookbook," said Chef Johnson.
Tomorrow and Thursday, the students will work on final preparations. Last month, the final two days involved such last-minute touches as adding blueberries to polenta, giving the Mediterranean version of corn bread some extra flair. This month, the students are carving rose pastillages -- a type of sugar mixture -- that will be given to the patrons as souvenirs.
Mount Hebron senior Mark Abel acknowledged that Thursday's dinner is very complicated, but he said that none of the students is really nervous. "The first time you get scared, but after you do it, you get comfortable," he explained.
At the end of the evening, students will be introduced to their patrons and given recognition for their roles in preparing the dinner.
"Some of the patrons view us as kids, but others see us as a real restaurant, and they come back year after year," said Ms. Maggitti. The culinary program's restaurant seats 60, but April's Gourmet Night was sold out months ago.
In past years, patrons made reservations at the April dinner for next October's dinner. The restaurant still is accepting reservations for next October, though there may not be a dinner. If Gourmet Night does resume, said Chef Johnson, the dinner will be buffet style and nowhere near the caliber of previous dinners.
"It's disappointing," said the Abel youth, one of the school's few third-year students. "I wish that everyone else would have the chance we did."
Chefs Heilman and Johnson, however, are already thinking of ways to make up for the loss. "Chef Johnson and I are creative people," Chef Heilman said. "If schools have chess clubs and glee clubs, why not have a culinary club? A few years down the road, we might even have something like this event, a gourmet night."