In Class: Chef Master
The Spice Box, which serves as a learning lab for the UI’s hospitality management program, is a white-tablecloth restaurant housed in the café on the second floor of Bevier Hall. The restaurant hosts fine-dining events that are open to the public on Friday nights and some Wednesdays during the spring semester. The execution of a Spice Box dinner serves as the capstone course for senior students in hospitality management. I’m a graduate of the program myself.
First, the seniors select themes for their events. The sky’s the limit. The theme could be something that’s near and dear to the student’s heart, like their family origins. Or something that they’re interested in, like fine French cuisine. This semester, one student is doing a fine-dining meal based on the TV show, Friends. The drastic changes in menu and décor that these themes inspire set the Spice Box apart and encourage our restaurant guests to visit repeatedly.
The senior responsible for the meal picks a support team: production manager, kitchen manager, service manager, host, bartender and scullery manager. Each senior in the program has to perform each role at least once.
At one event, we served pork loin and miscalculated the amount of spice rub needed. It was far too intense. We caught it early on, but we did have a few hit the dining room, and that’s how we first became aware of it. At another event, halfway through, we ran out of protein (coincidentally, also pork loin). We made a quick trip to the store, got our ovens nice and hot and made it work.
Our program has 60 to 70 students, with 10 to 15 seniors graduating every year. We are small but mighty. There aren’t many other programs in which you are given the keys to a small business and permission to take it for a test drive. We are spending real dollars: Our goal is to break even. It’s not a party with someone else’s money. It’s not okay to fail. But it is okay to make mistakes.
Our students graduate knowing how to prepare food in large quantities and how to serve the general public very well. They make the jump to hotels, cruise lines and casinos. Event management has become a popular career path.
When I graduated, I moved to Orlando, Fla., and managed resorts for Disney World. I was there for about six years. Probably 75 percent of my time and focus was spent stepping into situations of people being unhappy. A big part of my job was to find a way to rebound and set that guest experience back on track. Today, that’s a big part of what I’m teaching students—to fight that urge to say “No” or to turn a blind eye to a mistake, and instead to tackle it head-on and make a bad situation a better one.
Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on Nov. 28, 2018.
Editor’s note: Spice Box dinners range from $12 to $18 for a three-course dinner and $22 to $29 for a four-course, prix-fixe meal. For menu information and reservations, visit: spicebox.illinois.edu.