One of the best-kept dining secrets in central New Jersey can be found on Monday nights in room ES111 of the Engineering Systems Building at Mercer County Community College.
In that low-slung brick building, for eight weeks a semester, culinary students make and serve three-course dinners to the public. Any hungry person with a reservation can sit down for a starter, main course and dessert, for as little as $11. The venue is called the Viking Café.
By creating a restaurant setting in the classroom, Mercer gives students in its Applied Kitchen Skills class a hands-on opportunity to learn how a restaurant functions. Rising chefs and bakers work under the watchful eye of chef instructor Frank Benowitz, a member of the college’s Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management and Culinary Arts program.
The Viking Café also gives diners an opportunity to enjoy a thoughtfully prepared meal at a fraction of what it would cost in a for-profit restaurant. And yet they can expect a meal worth that price and more. The students may be learning, but that doesn’t mean they are inexperienced. Many work or have worked part time or full time in professional kitchens. And Benowitz always looks to source quality ingredients, locally when possible.
For the Café, students work in pairs at various stations in the kitchen. Benowitz assigns them certain food preparation tasks in the hours before service. Between 6:15 and 7 p.m., when guests arrive, one member of each pair stays in the kitchen to take the lead in finishing their assigned dishes. The other goes out into the dining room to serve the food. Every week, students change roles so that by the end of the semester, they will all have taken a turn at every station.
“It’s important to show them what that experience is,” Benowitz said on a Monday night in February, when students were making one of several test runs of the Viking Café. “In the kitchen, but also in the front of house.”
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Engineering Systems, like many buildings on campus, is boxy and functional, with architecture very much of its time (circa 1971). Visitors walking down a hallway lined with lockers and dark computer labs would be forgiven for checking twice to see if they are in the right place.
Only once they arrive at ES111 will they see the tables set up for dinner service, and through a wall of windows a large professional kitchen setup beyond. Then they will know that they have arrived.
In the hours leading up to service, the mazelike kitchen bustles with activity. At one end of the kitchen, a pot the size of a wash tub sits on a burner, full of 40 pounds of simmering onions.
Benowitz says that single pot will provide them with an entire semester’s worth of French onion soup en croute, one of three starters on the menu. Once made it can be frozen and reheated prior to service. “Has anyone stirred these onions?” he calls out.
A few burners down, a pan of ratatouille has been recently taken off the heat. “How’s the ratatouille?” Benowitz says. “Has someone tasted it?”
“It’s pretty good, Chef,” comes a reply.
“Pretty good?” Benowitz says. “I hope it’s better than pretty good.”
Benowitz tastes the sautéed mixture of eggplant and tomatoes while students observe. He reaches for the salt and sprinkles a little bit over the pan. “This is a pinch of salt at home,” he says. Then he reaches for the salt again and, holding his hand high over the pan, rains down a generous dose. “This is a pinch in a restaurant,” he says. “Why do people go out to eat? Salt. Sugar. Fat.”
Benowitz doesn’t mean more salt is always better, but he does want his students to understand the importance of proper seasoning. A few minutes later, a student brings him a tray of appetizers to try: lobster cakes with Pernod cream sauce. Benowitz takes one bite of a lobster cake and puts his fork down. He asks the student if he added salt as well as Old Bay seasoning to the recipe.
“Just a bit, Chef,” he says.
“There’s salt in Old Bay already. There’s no salt in the recipe, is there? This is why we go with the recipe,” Benowitz says. “This is inedible. With my high blood pressure I’d have to go to the hospital if I ate this.”
Benowitz is a Robbinsville resident and himself a graduate of Mercer. He went on to get degrees from Thomas Edison State College and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and worked in hospitality, retail and corporate management before settling in at the college in 2003.
He is equal parts guiding and chiding as he roams from station to station to check the students’ work. The February cooking sessions are designed so that the students have a chance to make mistakes and build confidence before they open to the public come March. Even then, the café is designed as a semester-long learning process. “Here, there’s no fear of repercussions,” Benowitz says later. “They won’t lose their job. Tonight, the lobster cakes are too salty. I guarantee next time they won’t be.”
Diners have three options for each course. Besides the onion soup and lobster cake starters, there are also meatloaf cupcakes: meatloaf formed in a muffin cup and topped with mashed potato “frosting.”
For the main course, this semester’s choices are a half-pound bacon cheeseburger, BBQ-style pulled pork and fried fish. There are also three choices of sides to go with the main course: ratatouille, confit of potatoes or health salad.
Student George Steill is from Hamilton. One of his jobs on this night is to prepare fillets of cod to be battered. Partner Wyatt Rue (also from Hamilton) is making the beer-and-vodka batter. When it comes out too thin, he asks Benowitz to come over and help troubleshoot.
At another station, Roger Lloyd preps custom-ground beef patties for the grill while his partner, Agna Simon, tends to the pulled pork, which is made not on the grill or in a smoker but rather in an Instant Pot pressure cooker, to save time.
For dessert, guests can choose among a plate of madeleines, milk chocolate crème brulee, or a third option that will change depending on which students are at the dessert station. The dessert team for this session is Lyne Simpson, from West Windsor, and Sean Lynn of Ewing. Simpson is putting decorative flourishes on today’s special, a flourless chocolate cake, while Lynn lights a butane torch to caramelize the top of one of the custards.
When the clock hits 6:15, Benowitz announces to the kitchen that it’s time to start service. If this were the real thing, customers would now be arriving for dinner. All at once, activity in the kitchen goes up a gear. Rue and Steill start battering cod and dropping fillets into the fryer. Simon and Lloyd, who are both from Trenton, shred the pork in a food processor while also seasoning the burgers and putting them on the grill. In the dining room, Francesca Lavino, a student from Genoa, Italy by way of Princeton, starts making coffee in a French press. Her partner, Kathalyn Silverman (East Windsor), puts the finishing touches on the health salad at the garde manger station.
Student Kathy Marroquin is in the role of class chef. Her partner, Julie Smith, is the dining room manager. One of Marroquin’s jobs as class chef is to devise and prepare an amuse bouche to be served to all customers at the start of their meal. She and Smith are testing two versions of mushrooms stuffed with ratatouille—one where the stuffing is minced, one where it is not—to decide which is better.
As each dish is finished and plated, students take them to Benowitz for a critique of the presentation. Generally he suggests small changes, like centering the burger on the plate or seeding the jalapeños for the pulled pork.
Simpson and Lynn give Benowitz a crème brulee to try. He samples the whipped cream and asks Simpson how she made it. She tells him and he gives her a fist bump. “Good job,” he says. When he turns away, she and her partner share a grin.
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Many of the students see enrolling in Mercer’s culinary program as a step to possibly owning a restaurant of their own someday. The Viking Café and other restaurant-style courses at Mercer are among the ways the college tries to prepare them for that eventuality.
The idea of the Viking Café is that the experience mimics that of working at a restaurant that already exists. The same can be said for the International Cuisine class, which will be serving lunches from a variety of cultures every Monday from March 4 to May 13. The cuisines of Israel, Mexico, Asia and France will be on the menus for that class.
A third class, Food Preparation II, also serves lunches in a restaurant setting on Wednesdays starting in March. But there, the students have to come up with a restaurant concept and menu themselves.
A number of students in this class have already taken the other two. For Lyne Simpson, this is the last class she needs to take before she graduates with her degree in pastry. She already has an A.A.S. degree in culinary arts.
Like several in the class, Simpson is older than the traditional college student. Not that long ago, she was teaching third graders at Dutch Neck Elementary School, and before that she had worked in finance.
She enrolled at Mercer because she has a dream of one day opening a resort in her native Philippines. Having never worked in a restaurant or a bakery, she wanted to train as a chef and baker.
“I considered the Culinary Institute of America,” she said. “Then I looked at the numbers, and I looked at the numbers here, and I was like …” she trails off. “There was no comparison.”
She worked for a time as a line cook and pastry chef at Brothers Moon, a restaurant in Hopewell Borough that closed last fall. Since 2016, she has also worked at the Hyatt Regency in West Windsor as a garde manger. “It’s different from Brothers Moon, on a big scale,” she says. “At Brothers Moon it’s all to order. At most, you do 200 in a day. At the Hyatt, you could do thousands.”
Her children, twins Mary and Fae, are 21 and graduates of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South. They are both now in college, Mary at SUNY Geneseo and Fae at SUNY Albany. Husband Mark is president and CEO of Triveni Digital.
Sean Lynn is in his second of three years in the program. Some students only need two years, but like Simpson he is getting degrees in both culinary arts and pastry. Also like Simpson, he considered going to CIA. “It costs like 60K a year,” he said. “What I found out is Mercer is as close as you can come to that kind of experience.”
He says he fell in love with the art of cooking as a student at Ewing High School. He credits teacher and Culinary Arts Club adviser John Kocubinski with stoking his interest. After he graduates, he wants to move to California to work as a personal chef. “Putting your own twist on everything, that’s what I love about it,” he said.
To get experience in the field, he has worked in the kitchen of Ewing Independent Living, a senior housing project owned and operated by his mother, Rebecca. There he developed a menu for 8 to 12 people, cooked the food, and cleaned up afterward. “Most of the people, I’ve known for a long time,” he said. “They were a lot harsher on me than most would be, so that helped me to grow.”
Kathy Marroquin did not know that she wanted to go into the culinary arts after graduating from Steinert High School. She started her collegiate career at Rutgers University, where she had planned to major in criminal justice.
It wasn’t long before she realized that she didn’t want to do that for a career. She left Rutgers and took a job at Cracker Barrel in Hamilton Marketplace. She has fond memories of being in the kitchen with her mother, Paula, making various recipes brought from her parents’ homeland of Guatemala.
“I was always in the kitchen with my mom, and I came here and I’m loving it,” she said.
She has one more semester before she can graduate with a degree in culinary arts and a certificate in pastry. When she is not in school she works at Wegman’s, splitting time between the meal center and the rotisserie chicken station, or wherever else she is needed. Her dream is to one day open her own little place serving “mostly Hispanic food.”
Mom Paula is a night auditor for Hilton hotels. Father Nery is a truck driver. Sister Megan is a student at Steinert High School, and brother Abraham is a student at Langtree Elementary School.
Marroquin’s class partner, Julie Smith, is also from Hamilton, having moved there in the past year from West Windsor. She is also pursuing degrees in both culinary arts and pastry.
Smith grew up in the restaurant business, in Poughkeepsie, New York, where her family owned and operated a restaurant called the Irish Club. “The way it worked was, only people who could prove their Irish lineage could go there,” she said. “You can imagine that St. Patrick’s Day was a big day for us. Every year we would serve 500 people in house and deliver 250 more meals.”
From the time she was 10 she was in the kitchen, doing prep work with her grandfather or helping her mother make the desserts—her favorite task. “With desserts it’s not work for me,” she says. “It’s just something I know.”
Her grandfather died in 2006, and the family sold the restaurant. But she had already decided that she had spent enough time in restaurants. She became a preschool teacher, something she did for 15 years.
After going through a divorce, she moved to New Jersey with her son Liam, who is now a student at Steinert High School with an interest in veterinary science. Looking for a “career reboot,” she realized she missed being in the kitchen and enrolled at Mercer to get a degree in pastry. She set a goal of someday opening a tea house that would be open daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and sell biscuits, scones, biscott, tea and coffee.
She was in the Food Preparation II class when Benowitz asked her why she was not also working toward a culinary arts degree. She told him it was because she didn’t have the money to do both.
“Since then, he’s been helping me get scholarship after scholarship to make sure that I can be here,” she said. “I’m a teaching assistant here now, and he’s been super helpful in terms of working my schedule around when I have classes and when I have to be home for my son.”
Benowitz said scholarships such as the ones that have helped Smith are a result of a Sponsor Partnership Program he began more than 12 years ago. Over the years, he has raised more than $100,000 for scholarships through the program. The logos of the partners are prominent on the sleeves of the chef whites he wears on campus.
“As a MCCC alumnus and employee, I take tremendous pride in working with students to assist however possible with their academic needs and wants,” he said.
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Those interested in eating at The Viking Café, or any of Mercer’s classroom restaurants, must purchase tickets online and in advance at mccc.edu/hrim. Only those with tickets will be admitted, and the window of 6:15 to 7 p.m. is strictly enforced. Parties as large as six can be accommodated.
In the weeks before the Viking Café officially opens, since there are no actual customers, the students get to eat and take home the food they have made. Benowitz says it’s important that they get this opportunity to enjoy the results of their hard work, and especially, to share with their families.
“In a way, they’re my customers,” he says if the students. “I want them to be happy with what they’ve done. I want them to bring it home to share and be proud of what they make.”