Published Online: November 2, 2004
Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Short-Order Education

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Short-Order Education

Massachusetts Students Cook Up Range of Fare

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At Salem High School in Salem, Mass., students operate a bistro in the basement called the Black Cat Cafe. The restaurant, which opened this fall, boasts linen tablecloths, framed black-and-white student photography, and menus that move past New England clam chowder.

“We’re kind of reinventing the wheel,” said Blaine Gann, the director of food services for the 6,500-student Salem district and the driving force behind the cafe. “I thought putting in a nice trendy cafe would be a nice learning tool for the students.”

The school’s 1,600 students don’t dine at the Black Cat for lunch. Instead, they operate the restaurant, where they serve teachers, for a grade in culinary arts. About six students work for as many as three periods each day at the restaurant. Some are servers and cooks, while a pair are bookkeepers.

“It’s ‘integrated education’ at its best,” said Mr. Gann, who has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 40 years. “We’re not just putting a hamburger together. [There is] real cooking, real presentation.”

“It’s just like the real thing,” said Steven Lambert, a 17-year-old senior. Mr. Lambert, who plans to attend a culinary-arts college, said the most important lesson he’s learned is about the strict rules for sanitation. “You learn everything you need to know for the future.”


The restaurant serves about 150 faculty members and sometimes local senior citizens. It generates about $2,000 a week to cover its costs.

“It’s not doing much for my waistline,” said Gail S. Triant, a physical education teacher. “The food is too good to pass up.”

Mr. Gann wanted to shore up the culinary-arts department, which was at risk as part of the shrinkage of Salem High’s vocational education department. In January, he used the facilities staff, students, his own expertise, and $53,000 in school money to renovate a long-shuttered restaurant in the school basement known as The Colonist.

The winners of two student contests named and created the restaurant’s signature black-cat logo last spring. The restaurant has been open since the first day of school.

Culinary-arts students work from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. serving faculty members, but after 2 p.m., the cafe is also open to students, who can grab after-school snacks and before-practice bites. The cafe serves an eclectic blend of frozen smoothies, lattes, cappuccinos, pastas, salads, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, and the Middle Eastern dishes hummus, tahini, and tabouli.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Mr. Gann said.

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Page 3

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