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Honors courses


At OCI restaurant, aspiring chefs get experience, patrons get affordable gourmet meals

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Culinary Institute instructor Dan Brophy critiques the performance of his students during a breakfast Fire Drill. Five days a week, you can get a three-course lunch for $9 in downtown Portland.

It’s not food cart fare — it’s very much restaurant fare, with seasonal menus that feature solid entrees like spring lamb ragoût, Carlton Farms pork chops and pan-roasted halibut.

The catch: The servers and waiters might be a little nervous, because it’s their first time doing this.

The cooks in training are students at the Oregon Culinary Institute, an independent cooking school that’s been downtown since 2006 and recently rebranded a bit to better reflect its mission.

“We’re kind of the rebel school, although we don’t try to be,” says Eric Stromquist, OCI president. “We’re not fancy. We take cooking seriously, and we want to have fun.”

In eight years, the school has graduated nearly 2,000 students, placing 91 percent of them in food service-related jobs across Portland and the United States.

Some are working for top restaurants; others are pursuing their dreams of teaching cooking, traveling the world, opening a catering business or food cart.

“You can take your knife kit with you anywhere,” says Spencer Utz, 25, a Chicago native and chef’s son who plans on traveling soon after he graduates from OCI this year.

On a recent day, Utz worked the salad station at the restaurant as diners filed in. As he was taught, he squeezed the vinaigrette around the greens in a metal bowl, rather than directly on the salad, to ensure an even coat of dressing.

Chef and Program Director Josh Blythe — who comes with a pedigree including stints at Roux, Genoa, Ripe, Paley’s Place and Wildwood — worked the front lines to keep tabs on the students, reminding Utz to put the bowl down as he plated the salad and use two hands.

“They’re training more than just Portland’s next generation of chefs,” Portland celebrity chef Vitaly Paley told the Tribune in a recent interview.

As the demand gets even higher for top culinary talent, the OCI students “fill a niche for guys like me who need quality help as the years progress,” Paley says. “More good restaurants open up. We draw from the same pool.”

OCI’s graduates have landed at places like Bunk Bar, Salt & Straw, Oven & Shaker and the Food Network’s “Chopped” show, a feat of skill and creativity.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Students prepare a typical lunch meal during class at OCI, which has developed solid chefs for restaurants around Portland.Ten OCI students recently cooked alongside Paley and Portland’s Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern at Domaine Serene, an idyllic winery on a hilltop in Dayton.

The four-course wine-paired dinner was one of the stops on this year’s James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour, a traveling series named for the Portland chef who helped start the revolution.

Paley and Eli Cairo, co-owner of Olympic Provisions, are two of the OCI’s biggest fans, appearing in a recent television spot and mentoring and hiring students in their restaurants.

They appreciate the fact that OCI’s approach to teaching is reality-based, rather than focused on tedious repetitions of old-school French techniques — which dominates the curriculum at most cooking schools here and abroad.

That was the reason Stromquist and executive chef Brian Wilke opened the school. In addition to learning essential skills, “we focus on why you do things, the flavor profile, what things are supposed to taste like,” he says.

They also drill in teamwork, speed and the importance of being humble.

“Others tell them, ‘You’re going to be a chef,’” Stromquist says. “We tell them, ‘You’re going to be a cook.’ We want them to have realistic expectations, have humility. We want them to understand their education starts when they leave here.”

Wide-ranging curriculum

One recent morning, a group of students on their third day of class gathered around an instructor talking about different types of fats.

They scribble notes and watch intently as chef instructor Bikram Vaidya drizzles canola oil in one sizzling hot pan and olive oil in another, setting them both on flaming burners.

As the olive oil heats up within seconds, he grabs the pan and walks it around for them to smell, wafting the scent into the air. “See how fast smell comes out of there, that’s called aroma,” Vaidya says.

He holds up a pan of butter he also put on the stove. “I caramelized that; it’s turned into brown, wonderful flavor,” he says.

In one kitchen over, more intermediate students are frantically preparing plates of eggs Benedict, pancakes, omelets, sausage, bacon and French toast. It’s a breakfast “fire drill,” in which they have to turn around the orders within 10 minutes, as if it were a real restaurant.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Culinary Institute students Chelsie Reeves and Natasha Dison prepare a breakfast during a recent class at the acclaimed school.Later in their studies, some will create a virtual restaurant and come up with a business and marketing plan, creating a concept, website and blog.

One of the required courses for all students is on food ethics and social responsibility, in which they learn about the decisions they’ll make in the industry when sourcing food.

During the year, they take field trips to hunt for shellfish at the Oregon coast, forage for wild mushrooms, and visit local farmers markets and farm collectives.

At Sweet Briar Farms in Eugene this year, students tracked a few heritage piglets and followed them as some were raised in a pen and others were free to roam.

Seven months later, a wine and beer pairing dinner featured each of the sister pigs to see if there was any taste difference.

There wasn’t any noticeable difference, Stromquist admits, but the point, he says, was “to make the connection to where food comes from.”

Paley has worked with all sorts of cooks in his three Portland restaurants. Some, he says, have inevitably asked, “What’s this, chef? I’ve never seen this before.”

That doesn’t do him any good. He wants the farm-to-table approach to be taught from the outset, which isn’t a core part of every culinary school.

“On any given week we’re able to work with 10 to 15 farmers,” Paley says. “We’ll bring in arugula from three different guys. To say, ‘Have these, guys, taste this stuff.’ They’re not opening up the book for the first time. They know what I’m talking about. It’s really cool when you

start conversing in the same language.”