From behind the stainless steel kitchen counter, Meosheka Chin-Tai drizzled balsamic vinegar atop an assortment of plated Italian cheeses.
The 22-year-old aspiring chef took great care to tilt the bottle just so. A thin stream zig-zagged across the plates. On this particular day, she was assisting Executive Chef Ezio Gamba — of Cioppino Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne — as he cooked for an audience of bloggers, writers and other local foodies visiting the Miami Culinary Institute housed at the Miami Dade College Wolfson campus.
But on most days, you can find her in the downstairs student-run cafe. This past summer she worked the cashier in the cafe, on other days she was in the kitchen preparing turkey wraps for a waiting student on a lunch break.
Chin-Tai is one of many South Florida college and university students who participate in student-run or assisted kitchens that are open to the public. The format gives students hands-on experience working in a restaurant.
And for price-conscious patrons, the food is heavily discounted.
At Miami Dade College, the Miami Culinary Institute Cafe dishes out breakfast and lunch. The offerings include baked goods, various salads and wraps — some of which are made with harvests from the school’s organic edible garden .
Chin-Tai said she left an environmental science major to focus on her passion for food.
“I really wanted to do something I was going to love,” said Chin-Tai, a Wynwood resident. “Despite all the long hours, I go home and say I can’t wait to do this forever.”
In recent years, the chef profession has been popularized by television and reality show programs. Names once familiar only in foodie circles are now well-known to the masses through shows like Top Chef and the Food Network Channel. Many chefs have been catapulted from the kitchen to celebrity hood as a result.
“That is a great thing,” said John Richards, director of MDC culinary institute. “But it’s a double-edged sword.”
He says he wants his students to love the profession and not some dream “to make it big.”
“Maybe one hundredth of one percent will end up on the Food Network. I don’t want to squash their dream, but for most people this is a job and it’s a hard job,” Richards said.
The lunch hour can get very busy inside the MDC student-run cafe. Each day is an impromptu lesson. Students learn how to handle the pressures of impatient customers and what to do when a customer is not satisfied
“I’m sure at one point or another they’re definitely in the weeds down there in the cafe,” said culinary coordinator Victoria Nodarse.
“The weeds” is restaurant talk for when the kitchen falls behind .
“It helps students understand that you don’t just get into the kitchen and everything is magically there waiting for you. They gain real world experience, which is something students lack a lot of,” said Nodarse, a Brickell resident.
At Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, students will launch their weekly lunch and dinner series in September.
The teaching-kitchen is integrated into the advanced food service management classes. Students learn the ins and outs of not just cooking, but managing an entire operation from the finances and decor theme to menu preparation.
“This is a training scenario. I, the professor, don’t run the restaurant and drag the students behind me,” said Mark D’Alessandro, a visiting associate professor.
The program’s public lunch and dinner set-up includes an appetizer or salad, entree, dessert, a glass of wine and coffee. The cost is $18.
The yearly program has gained a following. “The public loves it. The feedback is always great. We have regulars who try to come twice three time a semester,” D’Alessandro said.
For there Distinguished Visiting Chef program, students at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami are paired with accomplished chefs from around the country.
Students work in the front of the house preparing tables, greeting guests and serving food. And in the back of the house, the kitchen, students prep and execute dishes for the likes of top chefs and Johnson and Wales alumni such as Kevin Sbraga.
“It’s putting theory into practice. We try to give the students as much exposure to working in real life operations,” said Bruce Ozga, dean of culinary education.
Those experiences leave lasting memories and lessons for the students.
Ruben Santa-Robles, a junior in the program, assisted Sbraga in the kitchen when he visited campus last year.
“He was a very gentle person. Not everyone is gentle in the kitchen,” Santa-Robles, 22, said. “I learned mostly how he prepares a plate. Every plate has something crunchy, something sweet, something spicy, it’s like an explosion of flavor.”
Santa-Robles, a North Miami resident, said he loves getting direction from the visiting chefs, which he applies to enhance his skills in the kitchen.
“We cook whatever is going out in the dining room.,” he said. “The chef is making sure everything is on point.”