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February 24, 2014

Opening day at Lucy’s, UAA’s campus restaurant lab

Lucy's student line cooks
Second year culinary arts students prep the line for opening day
at Lucy’s—UAA’s restaurant laboratory for aspiring chefs,
restaurateurs and sommeliers.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage
The doors open for lunch at 11:30. In the dining room, servers in crisp black, tables in crisp white, formal place settings and the clink of ice in tall tea glasses all spell a tony, fine-dining experience.
Back in the kitchen, though, you could fillet the tension with a chef’s knife.

Seven culinary students—in kitchen whites with hair tucked into second-year black caps—stand pink-cheeked and sweaty-palmed beside their assigned cooking stations. Range hoods, dishwashers, refrigerators and ice machines hum a steady central-kitchen Muzak.

This is opening day for the semester at Lucy’s, a restaurant lab run by UAA’s culinary school to teach budding chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers the athletic ballet of split-second cooking, plating and presentation to real paying customers.

Lucy's kitchen
Chef Naomi Everett talks greens with student line cook Sazil Say.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage
Today’s entrees, salads and desserts are the handiwork of students. The first week of class, they dreamed of the ideal: cutting gorgeous photos from food-porn magazines, bringing mom’s classic in for an update, or crafting their own recipes. Alongside chef pros, they sorted and paired, priced and dismissed, tasted and tweaked dozens of recipes until they had their list of dishes—Lucy’s menu today.

Now they stand ready to deep-fry, grill, sauté and plate their offerings, from stuffed soft-shell crab teetering atop a ribbon Thai salad, to lime-and-cilantro grilled shrimp nestled in warm corn tortillas, to risotto croquettes trimmed in speck (bacon), pan-fried and served with spicy sauces. And that’s just three of a dozen items they must deliver in minutes upon customer demand.

red cabbage chopped
Students buy their chef tools and practice delivering perfect chops.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage
Does it sound like the dining car left the station with no one driving? Not so. Between the newbies and the expectant diners stand three culinary pros, able to apply years of experience to everything from tuning a recipe to dressing a plate to calming a crank.

For those “working the line,” their ally, muse, drill sergeant, Little League coach and traffic controller—Chef Naomi Everett— stations herself opposite them across a shiny metal counter.

“Look at me. Look at me. LOOK AT ME!” she barks till she sees their eyes. Rapid-fire orders like “I need a fire on a leek and mushroom tart coming up with a soft shell crab….” get punctuated with a loud “Ya heard?” to which all cooks in earshot must blast “Heard!”

Everett has worn the executive toque for Marx Bros., Settlers Bay Lodge and remote gold mining companies. She and her sister run their own private catering company and consult for restaurants. Together she and her student team will stare down the intensity of opening day at Lucy’s.

Out in the dining room, hospitality professor Amy Green hovers within earshot as new servers remember (or don’t…) to mention daily specials or grapple with the equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s order from “Five Easy Pieces.” (He wants dry toast, so orders a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, hold the mayo, the chicken, the lettuce and butter.)

Amy Green and student server Samantha Oliver
Amy Green and student server Samantha Oliver discuss
front-of-the-house strategies for meeting dining customers’ needs.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage
Green has run front-of-house for boutique eateries in food savvy San Francisco. By semester’s end, her charges know the answer to every gluten-sensitive, ‘Please-hold-the-X,’ ‘Can I substitute Y for Z?’ question in the playbook.

So, what can happen when students do the cooking?

Caroline Kardell graduates in May, having survived Chef Vern Wolfram’s 7 a.m. bakery classes as well as pressures on Everett’s “line.” Mention of opening-day stressors brings back her worst moment.

“I sent someone a raw Cornish game hen,” she says, scrunching her face in horror. Rushing to meet orders, she’d skipped the cardinal rule, “temp your product!"

Yes, it happens. But when it does, chefs seize the teachable moment. “Chef Naomi opened it up, saw it was raw, and shouted: ‘Caroline! We need a refire on the Cornish game hen!’ “ With fervor, Kardell says she’ll never forget to “temp” again.

Lucy's fresh baked goods cart
First year students start class at 7 a.m. and bake goods for the cart that sells their
fresh product right outside Lucy’s front door in Cuddy Hall.
From left, Cheyenne Selman, Joycelyn Weaver and Avery Kristiansen
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

Everett tells them, “Look, this is how it is. We have guests out there paying for food. They don’t care if you’re in the weeds back here. So let’s figure it out!”

At the front of the house, where novices wield heavy trays and meet customers face-to-face, Green intervenes in rough moments.

“There’s tears. Meltdowns. But that’s all part of the learning process,“ Green says. “We’re practicing.”

So, when something does go wrong, the crew recooks, replaces or offers a coupon for a return visit. “We want everyone to be happy here,” diplomat Green says.

So what’s in it for customers? Modestly priced and eclectic menus you won’t find anywhere else in town. Campus parking vouchers. A $5 dessert buffet every Friday.

Foodies know the drill; opening day draws regulars, ready to sample another new menu.

If you go:
Lucy’s website with hours, menus, OpenTable reservation link, customer reviews.

Note: This story appeared in Green & Gold News on Feb. 5, 2014. A version of this story also appeared in the Anchorage Daily News Feb. 2, 2014.