Willow Ridge Restaurant gives students hands-on experience
Customers can explore culinary specialties from other countries
A small bell dings and a waitress dressed in all black comes gliding in through the door to pick up the plates of beef carpaccio with roasted garlic aioli and take them to the customers waiting in the dining room at Willow Ridge Restaurant.
Back in the kitchen, the hustling and bustling doesn’t skip a beat, as the chefs in training start preparing the next course.
Three nights a week, that’s the scene in the kitchen at Willow Ridge Restaurant, 1788 Madison Ave.
The Iowa Central Community College culinary arts, baking, hospitality and turf grass management programs help maintain and run the college-owned golf course and restaurant. The restaurant is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Willow Ridge was donated to the college by Don and Dianne Decker in 2011, but the college has been using it since 2007.
Culinary instructors Chef Michael Hirst and Chef Geoffrey Phillipson lead the students in the kitchen.
“This is the best experience you can get,” Hirst said of the hands-on class.
It’s a one credit class that requires 60 hours of hands-on experience at the restaurant. Currently, there are 16 culinary students, six baking students and eight hospitality students in the class. The students are divided into three teams, which rotate service days each week. The teams are only required to work one night a week, but some go above and beyond that.
“Some of the kids are brilliant,” Hirst said. “Some of them will come out and work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday every week because they realize this is the best education they can get. The more experience you get here, the better.”
The restaurant is open to the public and though reservations are appreciated by the staff, they’re not necessarily required.
Hirst encourages members of the community to come out to Willow Ridge to see the work that the students put in there and enjoy the menus, many of which include dishes that aren’t commonly found in Fort Dodge area restaurants.
“They’ll produce amazing food,” he said. “Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve not eaten better food in the 13 years I’ve been in Iowa than here. I can go down to Des Moines and spend $120 on dinner for two, and I’ve had better in my own student restaurant.”
The five-course meal is $25 per person, and includes a bread course and a dessert course.
In the fall semester, the class works on menus that rotate every two weeks.
“We want to give them a bit of repetition, because our job is a lot of repetition when we prep — some restaurants don’t change their menu for a whole year and we’ve got to show them as many different skill sets with the food as possible,” Hirst said.
The students will work on pan roasting, searing, baking, braising, stewing and more.
“We’re ticking all the boxes of the types of cooking skills we want them to have and know,” Hirst said.
When Hirst and Phillipson are writing the menus, they’re including seasonal produce whenever they can, and trying to expose the students to ingredients they’ve probably never used before.
In the spring semester, the class has weekly rotating menus featuring different national and regional cuisines each week, often exposing the community to dishes they’ve never had the chance to try before.
In the back of the kitchen on a recent night at the restaurant, Robert Lenchanko, a sophomore, carefully lays out thinly-sliced pieces of beef that are just barely brown on the edges. He’s preparing beef carpaccio — an Italian appetizer made with raw meat. Later, a customer will comment that they thought the carpaccio was “a little too rare,” not realizing that it is meant to be served that way.
Lenchanko said that while he now loves the culinary arts program at ICCC, he initially wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do when he started school.
“I really got into this,” he said. “I’ve never really liked school my whole life … once I saw how great this program was, I just fell in love with it.
For now, Lenchanko is working on the “cold” side of the kitchen, away from the stoves and ovens, but he most enjoys working with the various meats the restaurant prepares.
“I just really like putting it on a hot pan and basting it with butter and turning it over and seeing the perfect sear,” he said. “That’s my favorite, but for now, I’m doing the cold side.”
The class really pushes him, Lenchanko said.
“It really tests you, there’s a lot of challenging things,” he said. “For example, when it gets really busy and he calls out a lot of orders, it gets really hot and you get sweaty and you’ve just got to push and get those orders done perfectly.”
Students have been enjoying the hands-on experience they get at Willow Ridge.
“I think it’s awesome, I love it,” said Kamilla Brindley, a baking student. “It’s good to have experience in the industry. It’s so much better than just sitting in a classroom — you’re actually on your feet getting experience.”
Brindley said that while she enjoys making nearly all the desserts for the Willow Ridge Restaurant, there have been some challenges.
“Creme brulee was really hard for me,” she said. “I got burned a few times on that one.”
Hirst is proud of the work his students produce at Willow Ridge.
“I’m blown away by what they can do,” he said.
Izabel Bidwell, a sophomore, completed the culinary arts training last school year and is working on the hospitality program this school year.
“It’s just so much fun,” she said of the restaurant class. “I absolutely love it up here.”
She said being able to interact with customers and talk to them about the food and explain the dishes has been “huge” for her.
This is not a “money-making” exercise, Hirst emphasized.
“It’s more about these guys getting experience,” he said. “It’s about giving our kids stuff to do so they get the practice.”
The rest of the menus for the semester are set, including Spanish seafood paella, Greek kolokithokeftedes, Thai coconut green curry, African camel koftas, Chinese five spiced duck, Mexican ceviche and more.