The next generation of culinary professionals is cooking up Italian food in Allen in a surprising location: Called Blu Restaurant, it's a student café and teaching kitchen located inside Allen High School at the Performing Arts Center.
Blu has been around for 11 years in one form or another, usually under the tutorship of a credited chef. The current chef-in-charge is industry veteran Chad Pritchard, a Le Cordon Bleu culinary grad who has owned and operated restaurants in Dallas, Utah, and the Virgin Islands.
Pritchard was enchanted by the opportunity to teach, and took the reins in July. His influence can already be seen on ambitious menu items such as fresh-made pasta, braised lamb shanks, and branzino.
"Traditionally, student-run restaurants serve hamburgers and hot dogs," Pritchard says. "There’s not a lot of high-end, or even real culinary work being done."
Pritchard has instituted a curriculum based on the seven classic French techniques of cooking. (In case you’re wondering, that’s flambéing, searing, sautéing, pan-frying, poaching, broiling, grilling, and braising.) He's also established a baking program with classes on bread baking and desserts from scratch.
"We are doing things that quite frankly, a lot of restaurants aren’t even doing," he says. "We are baking our own bread. We make our own risotto. We make our own polenta."
The class consists of nine weeks of training, leading up to the restaurant's opening, which this semester took place on October 25. it'll remain open through the semester, close during the holidays, and reopen in January.
While the kitchen and facility are well-appointed, the actual staffing is small, consisting of Pritchard and only one other full-time employee, Alexandra Vrettos. The program has two other instructors who teach classes but are not hands-on in the restaurant.
Roughly 200 students are enrolled, rotating from kitchen duty to front-of-the house service. It's a rigorous program requiring a five-day-a-week commitment: deep cleanings on Monday, prep work on Tuesday, and lunch service Wednesday-Friday, from 11 am-1:30 pm. Prices range from $10 to $25, and all proceeds go back to the program.
The restaurant is open to the public, with walk-ins welcome and reservations required for large parties of 10 or more.
"We are an actual working restaurant, and we are also a classroom," Pritchard says over the hum of students in the background. At different points during this interview, he pauses to shout out "No running in the kitchen!" "Don’t sit on the table!" and "Button up your chef coat!"
The average age of the student cooks is 16; the oldest is 18.
“Sometimes we forget they are still kids, but we do have high expectations," he says. "They are doing the job as good or better as some cooks twice their age.”
He's a firm believer in the value of vocational/trades education.
"For so many kids, something like this can be much more important than social studies, math, or science," he says. "It’s training kids to be independent, hard working, successful adults. I’m pleased to be part of a program that trains kids to work in a trade that they can take with them for their whole lives."