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Made to Order

In a sign of the times, the Hotel school’s capstone course in restaurant management embraces takeout

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What do we do about the frisée?

That’s the subject at hand during an afternoon videoconference—as four students, their instructor, a teaching assistant, and a chef debate the fate of some upscale lettuce. It’s the first Monday in November, and Hotel instructor Douglass Miller and chef Robert White are in Statler Hall; the students and a TA are Zooming in from various locations around East Hill.

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Curbside Service: Orders are picked up outside the Statler Hotel; each to-go bag bears a QR code that patrons can scan to launch an online survey about their meal, giving feedback to the student managers.Sara DeGraw

At issue is what to do about the greenery in the fig and brie turnover, an $8 appetizer that the menu describes as “warm brie and fig jam wrapped in layers of herb-infused phyllo dough on a bed of frisée.”

The problem: the dish is being served as part of an all-takeout operation. Ithaca’s evenings have turned cold and dark—it’s the day after the clocks were set back, and the season’s first snow is threatening—and to stay at a palatable temperature, the turnovers will need to be kept in a warming box as they await pickup outside the Statler. But that means that the vinaigrette-tossed leaves on which they repose could turn flaccid.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” one student offers. “It’s only going to be an issue if it’s sitting there more than ten to fifteen minutes.” The chef shakes his head and says, “It sits there that long—or longer—almost every time.” Then: “You talk about it and let us know what you want to do.”

The students confer. Can they post a notice on social media, encouraging patrons to pick up their food promptly? (They can try, but they doubt it would do much good.) Could they put the frisée in a separate container? (Yes, but that would ruin the presentation and increase the dish’s container costs.) Should they cut way down on the amount of lettuce, since a lot of people might consider it a garnish anyway? (No, because the menu has promised something vaguely salad-like; plus Miller weighs in that if he were a customer, he’d consider the frisée part of the dish, and he’d eat it.)

After a few minutes of back and forth, they land on a solution: they’ll supply the planned amount of lettuce, but the dressing will be served on the side, nestled next to the turnover in the takeout container. “If you don’t dress it,” Miller assures them, “it’ll last longer in the hotbox.”

For the students—seniors Caroline Creaser, Maryam Quraishi, Victoria Taylor, and Jessica Wiener—this Monday event is a Hotelie rite of passage: the restaurant management night marking the capstone of their Big Red educations. But like so many things in the COVID era, during 2020–21 that milestone looks very different. Instead of planning and executing an evening in Statler Hall’s elegant, purpose-built teaching restaurant—dubbed Establishment—this year the students have been assigned a task all too familiar to eateries around the globe: running a takeout-only operation. “This model is mirroring the industry; some restaurants that a year ago said they would never do takeout are doing it—including ones with three Michelin stars,” Miller says. “Obviously, the students would like to have their Establishment night in person, but at this point it’s not feasible. Overall, I think it’s going well.” And as he goes on to note, it all represents a valuable lesson in crisis management—“how to deal with situations that you have no control over, but where you still have to deliver.”

Distance Learning (clockwise from top left): Zoom portraits of TA Angie Escalona and “As the Leaves Turn” managers Caroline Creaser, Victoria Taylor, Maryam Quraishi, and Jessica Wiener; White discusses the team’s dishes via video in the empty dining room; Miller checks in with students.Portraits: DeGraw. Others: Provided.

In keeping with Cornell’s COVID safety measures, the course—Restaurant Management (HADM 3350), required of all Hotelies—is being conducted remotely, with the lectures, guest speakers, and class meetings held via Zoom. During the meal service, only a handful of people are in the spacious Establishment facility: just the instructor (Miller or a colleague, depending on the day), one TA, the chefs and a few other kitchen staff, and a Statler worker tasked with running the orders out to the curbside pickup spot, located to the left of the hotel’s main entrance. All wear face masks and observe proper social distancing guidelines, and some sport wireless headsets so they can talk to the student managers on the fly. “It adds different complexities; the students are giving up control on the execution of their menu items to some degree, so they need to communicate their vision in a different way,” Miller observes. “Not being on site, they don’t have the ability just to fix it themselves. But they’re still making decisions; they’re still engaging.”

As with a typical Establishment night, the teams for the virtual version create a special themed menu, generally comprising an appetizer, main course, and dessert. The restaurant—which has moved to a lower price point and leaned toward more casual offerings in a nod to the takeout model—also has everyday items including starters like truffle fries, shrimp dumplings, and Brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots and honey; entrées include burgers (both meat and vegetarian), duck confit pizza, and beef short rib au jus. Dinner is offered Monday through Thursday; on Fridays, Establishment operates at mid-day—in part to accommodate students taking the class from far-flung time zones—and the menu expands to include lunchtime fare like a fish fry sandwich and build-your-own tacos. “People have been very happy and impressed with the food,” observes Angie Escalona ’21, who took the course in its conventional form her junior year and served as a TA (both in person and online, on different days) last fall. “The quality has been really impressive across the board. And the students have been so creative. I’m amazed with what they’ve come up with.”

Last fall’s menus were all over the map—literally, with numerous teams creating culinary mashups. A night dubbed “Collide” featured Asian-Latin American fusion: beef lettuce wrap empanadas, Asian pulled-pork tacos, and churros with matcha-white chocolate mousse. Another team called their night “The New Normal,” with a menu themed like a boarding pass for a marathon trip from Ithaca to Korea to India to Kenya to Finland (and featuring items like meatballs with gochujang chili sauce and a masala-spiced chicken sandwich). Yet another went all in with an arty Italian theme it dubbed “Dine & Design,” concocting a Caprese salad tower stacked on crispy eggplant with a balsamic glaze and an entrée of linguine al pesto with grilled chicken, zucchini, and portobello mushrooms; dessert was brown sugar pound cake topped with mascarpone buttercream, honey, and toasted walnuts. “The students are counting on us to execute their vision and the planning they put into their menu,” says White, a veteran chef-instructor who has been at the Hotel school long enough to be teaching the children of his early students. “We do our best to keep them engaged and involved so they have as much of the experience as possible without actually being there.”

Normally, Establishment students split their semester between the front of house—where they greet diners and wait on tables—and the kitchen, where they rotate among various roles, from working the grill to plating desserts. The day before their own management night, they do as much hands-on food prep as possible; the meal service itself is a whirlwind of cooking (with the aid of professional staff) and problem solving, with the aim of providing an enjoyable and seamless experience for a dining room full of guests. But in the virtual version, while the students still design the recipes and order the provisions, they have to watch remotely as others tackle the hands-on work. “Even though we’re doing all the back of house operation, we want them to maintain that feeling of ownership, to give them the sense that they still have control,” says Tony Vesco, who brings two decades in the kitchens of the Royal Australian Navy to his role as a chef-instructor. “We’re here to assist them, give them guidance, and make suggestions. I believe we’ve done that pretty well, and they’ve been very receptive. It has worked out to everyone’s advantage.”

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A student team manages their Establishment night via Zoom Left to right, Uno Wait ’21, Leland Goodman ’21, Ashleigh Hogan ’21 and Remi Katz ’21.Lindsay France

On that Monday night in early November, the four teammates presided over a fall-themed meal entitled “As the Leaves Turn.” The $15 main course: roasted acorn squash stuffed with turkey sausage, kale, mushrooms, and leeks. Inspired in part by Ithaca’s annual downtown Apple Harvest Festival—which was held in a much-reduced form in 2020—the menu featured a dessert (priced at $7) of apple cider donut holes dusted in cinnamon sugar and served with caramel dipping sauce. “We thought about what people have been missing this year,” Taylor explains later. “Even though we couldn’t be with our friends as much as we wanted to, we could bring the fall to them.” In lieu of the specialty cocktail that normal Establishment nights often feature, the team designed and publicized a recipe for apple cider sangria. (Though to-go alcohol sales are legal with food orders under New York State’s pandemic-era guidelines, the takeout operation isn’t doing them.)

In the run-up to the dinner service, the team and Escalona go over the pre-orders that have come in so far. The system is all online and cashless; orders, which can be entered starting a couple of hours before service begins that day, are made by time slot using a Cornell Dining app. (The ordering system presents the takeout operation’s biggest marketing challenge: because the app can only be accessed by current students, faculty, and staff—excluding other local residents—the restaurant’s customer base is inherently limited.) They discuss such issues as how many of the special items have been sold so far, which guests have indicated dietary restrictions or allergies, and which time slots are filling up.

Then comes the moment the students have been waiting for all semester: the chefs show them an example of each special dish in its takeout container, just as it will be presented to guests. “Right here we have the squash,” says Vesco, holding it up to the Zoom camera. “Here is your turnover that has the cheese and the fig jam and the frisée; I’ve put some slivers of dried figs as a little garnish. Then we have our donut holes.” The students respond with claps and thanks, then ask the chefs to taste the dessert for them. “Warm, right out of the fryer,” says White. “They’re delicious.” Contemplating the stuffed squash, the students ask whether a vegetarian version would be feasible. “We’re actually building them to order and popping them in the oven, so if somebody asks, ‘Could I have one without the sausage?’ the answer from our end is yes,” White says, suggesting quinoa as a substitution. “It’s possible to do; you make the ultimate decision.”

When the University suddenly shifted to virtual instruction partway through the spring 2020 semester, only about two-thirds of students enrolled in HADM 3350 had completed their management night; the rest had to settle for presenting theirs as case studies. So for the roughly seventy students who took it in fall 2020—all of whom were seniors who needed the course to graduate—the virtual/takeout model (which will likely continue this spring) made the best of an unfortunate situation. “I honestly didn’t expect to have an Establishment experience this semester,” says Creaser. “I’m so grateful to the school for doing this for us, because we didn’t know what we were going into for our senior year. I’ve been thinking about my management night since before I even came to the Hotel school—it’s one of the reasons why I chose to come here. It’s the culmination of so many of our amazing core classes, and I really wanted to do it as a final capstone, to see how all my prior education came together.”

Miller (at right) confers with kitchen staff.DeGraw

To mark the occasion, Creaser’s housemates ordered the “As the Leaves Turn” menu items; after service wrapped up for the evening and she logged off Zoom, the group held a celebratory dinner. Quraishi and Wiener, best friends who’d formed a COVID “pod,” had a friend drop off their food so they could enjoy it together. “Having it go virtual was definitely a little upsetting, because Establishment is a rite of passage,” admits Quraishi, who graduated this past December. “I was super excited for my family to come up; I was going to pay for their hotel room at the Statler, and it was going to be a lovely end to my Cornell experience. But in terms of my friends coming and eating my food and me being proud of it, that was all still there. The entire night, I was receiving text messages: ‘This was so good; I hated squash before, but I was so surprised.’ One of my friends ordered two of the squashes—one for the next day—because she was so excited about it.”

While technology can only go so far in replicating the in-person experience, the course has leveraged it as much as possible. There are multiple cameras in the kitchen so the student teams can watch the meals being cooked and packaged; another camera at the Statler Circle pickup spot lets patrons—who tend to be friends and professors of that meal’s managers—send greetings as they collect their food. And through social media, the students’ accomplishments can be celebrated far and wide. “It was so exciting; people were taking pictures of the food, posting on Instagram, texting us, telling us how much they enjoyed it,” Wiener recalls. “Everyone really loved it. I was very pleased with that.”

All in all, the team had fifty-four orders and served a total of 168 items; when some pickup times became so popular that the slots filled up, the students successfully appealed to Miller and the chefs to add more. And as for the brie turnover with the problematic frisée? It sold out, and the other two specials—the squash and the donut holes—came close. “Things were different, but different is not always bad,” Taylor observes. “If you have a positive attitude, you can still have fun—but you have to pursue it. If I’d been so focused on what I didn’t have, I wouldn’t have seen all of the abundance that I did have.”


Past Perfect

A wistful look back at pre-COVID dining

January/February 2020 magazine cover

What a difference a year makes. In CAM’s January/February 2020 issue, Establishment—in its traditional, in-person form—was the cover story. The feature chronicled how students handled the ups and downs of running a restaurant, from devising menus and testing recipes to cooking meals, mixing cocktails, and providing gracious service at tableside.

Click here to read “Food for Thought”.

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