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PLATEFUL DECISIONS: UNLV hospitality students try to crack the code of the kitchen on quest to become Vegas tourism titans

Can we think outside the (takeout) box?

Say, as when you’re naming college courses teaching restaurant management skills to aspiring hospitality honchos? This course settles for the semi-snoozy moniker, “Food Service Operation Fundamentals.”

Direct, but … zzzzzzzzz.

Our (unsolicited) suggestion: “It’s Their Classroom and They’ll Fry If They Want To (101).”

Because it is. And they do. But how well?

“Have we done anything right yet?” asks the student in the black-and-red-striped apron over embroidered white smock — in industry-speak, an individualized “kitchen uniform” — as a frown of uncertainty creases his potential chef-of-the-future face.

Quizzically, he gazes at a sizzling pan of today’s Featured Attraction — a basil-speckled slab of pork loin, with squash cubes strewn around it like little yellow spotlights — then glances at his equally quizzical student co-chefs. “No wait, we have red wine, we’re good!

Worry not: They’re cooking, not imbibing here at the aforementioned “Food Service Operation Fundamentals” — think of it as Tourism Titans in Training, it’s way sexier — at UNLV’s sleekly modern Hospitality Hall, the heartbeat of the university’s William F. Harrah Hospitality College.

Audrey Alonzo is seen during her food service fundamentals class at UNLV Thursday, February 21, 2019. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

“Today, it’s team-building exercises,” says their instructor, UNLV Prof. Audrey Alonzo, ex-sous pastry chef at MGM Grand’s Craftsteak. “I don’t even think cooking is the focus, even though that’s what we do every time. Most of them say they want to be front-of-the-house managers — maybe one out of 30 will want to work in a kitchen.”

So why are they here? Yes, it’s a required course on the curriculum menu. Beyond that? Because the drill at these kitchen grills is not about stirring a student’s culinary talent until it bursts into a flambé of fame, à la Wolfgang Puck. Rather it’s about heating up the larger instincts necessary for hospitality/tourism careers, which produce Vegas’ economic bread and butter.

“It’s important for them to understand what the back of the house goes through,” says Alonzo. An expert with both a spatula and a spreadsheet, Alonzo earned degrees in baking/pastry arts, plus restaurant management from New York’s Culinary Institute of America, and a master’s degree in hotel administration from UNLV.

“I worked in the back of the house for many years and it’s amazing how much disconnect there is between the front and the back, so when I teach I look to connect those two things. You’re concerned (as a manager) because the food is not coming out super-fast, but why is it not? How long does it take to make? What’s in the preparation of that product? How much time do they have to take just to get ready for service? So, this is a good appreciation.”

Before the kitchen and cooking comes the classroom and coaxing. One-word guidelines — “Discuss. Look. Plan. Execute” — are scrawled on a whiteboard in the fourth-floor lecture room that neighbors the test kitchen, to which they will shortly adjourn.

“Teamwork makes the dream work,” Chef Alonzo tells the 20-plus students as they’re about to splinter into four-person teams. “Are you excited or are you nervous?”

Several appear eager. Others … not. Mindful that a few could someday rise to the noble heights of yelling at contestants on Food Channel reality shows, while others might be more on the have-it-your-way-burger-cooking level — Alonzo tells them: “If you are an awesome cook at home, let’s work with that. If you worked in a restaurant and you have awesome ideas that went with that, work with that. But work within your skill set.”

As the semester progresses, challenges will include deriving maximum deliciousness from soups, sauces, veggies and varieties of meat. Today, though, their gastronomic arsenal contains only pork, yellow squash and herbs — lesson: make do with what you’ve got — plus whatever students think they can use to seduce the palate from a kitchen stockpile of sugar, breadcrumbs, canned goods, vinegar, olive oil, spices, etc.

Bottom line: Revving up culinary creativity, albeit with Alonzo’s cautionary caveats about choosing vegetarian alternatives, dodging food allergies and obeying cleaning and sanitary procedures.

“All the sinks at your stations are called produce sinks because they are meant only to clean produce, drain water, grab water for pots and pans,” Alonzo says. “They are not meant for rinsing knives or washing dishes or even your hands, for that matter. If I see you doing that I will stop you. OK, let’s get changed into your uniforms.”

With that, the fashionista-casual motif that is everyday student-wear — backpacks, jeans, T-shirts, jackets and hoodies — disappears under a sea of white, each uniform stitched with their names alongside “UNLV College of Hospitality,” their ensemble topped by protective caps.

These, after all, aren’t hash-slingers. They’re budding Sustenance Artists. As the expression (kind of) goes: Clothes make the chef.

To the kitchen, kids.

Thank the Google gods – cellphones are whipped out across the kitchen expanse of multi-burner ovens and tables as recipes are searched, analyzed, then riffed upon. Knives are poised over pork and squash. Everywhere you look is a variation on the same scene: Students read. Point. Chop. Debate. Giggle. Chop. Read. Giggle again.

“We want them to use their brains and come up with something that is feasible even for a restaurant,” Alonzo says. “So it’s, ‘Here’s a recipe I came up with, this is why it works, this is how much that recipe will cost if I want to make it. And to execute it, this is how I would put it into a workbook for my staff.’”

Some are briskly determined, striding toward the storage unit, calculating how to deploy supplies, formulating gastro-plans. Others? Slightly lost, a mite confused, finding no guidance in each other’s sheepish shrugs.

“Some of them come from families where they run a hotel or restaurant and they want to take over that,” Alonzo says. “You can tell the difference between people who have been growing up with it and those who haven’t — and you’ll see that today.”

Yes, we do.

“This is pretty easy,” says freshman Cal Reichart, exuding an easy culinary command over his team’s dish. “This pork loin will have Dijon mustard, black pepper and a red wine sauce at the end, with some Parmesan squash rounds. We’re going to bake those, a little crispy, like a healthy cheese bread. I’m pretty excited.”

And to Chef Alonzo’s point? “I’ve been in restaurants since I was 16,” Reichart says. “I’m from Philly so I did a lot of fine dining there, serving and running food. I want to get into the restaurant industry as a front-of-the-house manager.”

And to Chef Alonzo’s flip-side point? “I dunno — I watched my grandmother and my dad for years, and I’m just kind of throwing a lot of stuff together,” says freshman Kelvin Cann at another food station. Yet he carefully, almost gingerly, slices a chunk of pork and places it in a bowl as if it were a fresh-cut diamond.

“We’ve got the pork chops and I found a steak rub and I threw some lemons in it and threw it in a pan and I’ll put some basil on it. We’re just going with the flow — ‘Oh, this sounds good, we’ll throw this in.’”

Shall we assume that chef-dom is not in his Master Plan? “I’m a golf management major,” he says. “Maybe I’ll run a bar in the golf industry. My ultimate goal is to get to my hometown in Northern Nevada, in Fallon. But the hospitality program here is exceptional. It’s a brand-new facility, and it’s in-state tuition, so the price isn’t bad.”

So, no chef-of-the-future at his table. Nor at hers, across the room. “I’m interested in the legal side, I’d like to do labor law in hospitality, but this is my fun class,” says senior Ledua Sagawinit, flicking ingredients into her pan with clear relish (as in enthusiasm, not a condiment).

“We are making roasted pork loin with squash and zucchini. We used olive oil, we kept it really simple, and our garnish is parsley, garlic salt and pepper. We did a Google search and we didn’t have all the ingredients so we improvised and came up with this dish.”

So, labor law, huh? “I will be taking my L-SATs,” she says, referring to the acronym for Law School Admissions Test, “so wish me luck!”

LUCK!

Ingredients remain constant across every student table, but dreams differ widely.

“I’m currently working at a restaurant, Bottiglia at Green Valley Ranch,” says junior Osae Wahab, as she whips up a little spaghetti, which conveniently addresses her current craving.  “So, if I’m planning to work in hotel management — maybe a big company like Marriott or the Four Seasons — this gives me a booster on my knowledge.”

At another table, sophomore Anna Mae Traxler hopes to use food as the baton in a family hand-off. “I actually have a company with my mom, we manufacture gluten-, grain- and sugar-free cooking mixes, so this helps qualify me to run our business,” Traxler says, savoring the veggies she just cooked. “I’m already working with her now, but then I would get ownership and take over the business.”

Others have to factor international concerns into their thinking. “I want to do event planning, ” says Amy Sa-Nguansis, who came to Las Vegas from Thailand, one of many students from outside the U.S., weighing how — and where — to best use their new UNLV-powered hospitality smarts. “I heard UNLV is the best for hospitality. I’m still deciding whether I should go back (to Thailand) after graduation or work here.”

One team is finally ready to devour what they’ve created. Forks up! “We did pretty good for the first time!” says sophomore Anson Magooshboy, though another bite gives him pause. “But I think a little less pepper on the yellow squash. And probably a different cheese. We used Parmesan. Maybe cheddar instead.”

Hey, remember that it’s your classroom and you’ll fry — or bake or roast or fricassee — however you want to.


To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

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