March 12, 2008

Be Our Guests, Be Our Guests, Put Our Service to the Test

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Wander into the Statler on a Saturday evening during the spring semester and you may find something funny going on. Banfi’s, already one of the more elegant restaurants in Ithaca, is now over-the-top extravagant. Who’s behind all of the pomp, circumstance and wine pairings? Obviously the hotelie from down the hall.
The Guest Chefs Series is one of the Hotel School’s prime offerings for both students and the community alike (if you can afford the $150 a plate price —though they do take Cornell Card …) Three Saturdays each spring for the past 19 years, the Hotel School has let the approximately 25 students in its HADM 403 Guest Chefs course take over Banfi’s with some of the world’s most renown chefs at the helm of the menu and the kitchen. This past Saturday, the class invited Daryl Schembeck, the executive chef for the United Nations, up from New York City to help them create a five-course meal complete with hors d’oeuvres and too many wines to count, though it was the students themselves who ran the entire event.
SLIDESHOW: Click here to view a slideshow from the event!
For this specific event, the food reflected the international expertise of Chef Schembeck, who makes meals for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea every day and creates the menus for the equivalent of 150 state dinners for foreign dignitaries every year. From Chilean wine to German-inspired veal cheek schnitzel and spätzle to fois gras to a take on lobster borscht as an hor d’oeuvre, the meal was definitely international. And the U.N. logo atop the mini gingerbread cupcake (with chai cream cheese frosting) was another nice global touch.
One of the really exceptional parts of the Guest Chef series is the access both the students and the guests have to the chefs, who are masters of their field and internationally renowned. The chef will typically come up on the Thursday before the event and will prepare for the event with the students the entire day before. Saturday, of course, the kitchen and prep areas are a zoo, but the chef supervises the students and helps them directly. While the last course of the dinner is served, a Q&A session is typical, where the patrons of the dinner can ask the visiting chef how he or she became involved with the series, what it’s like to work in their field and how they like the terrible Ithaca weather. Then after the patrons have dispersed, the students will have a debriefing session with the guest chef discussing what went well and what could be improved. Considering that past Guest Chefs have included Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse and Masaharu Morimoto, this level of access is what people go on Top Chef for.
The highlight of Saturday’s meal itself was the cappuccino napoleon for dessert, or rather, the first course of dessert. Patrick Henry should have said, “Give me puff pastry, or give me death,” because after one bite of this he would have happily given up liberty for an endless supply. The cappuccino napoleon is also an exemplar of the rest of the meal: each detail was carefully thought out, like how atop the pastry there was a layer of cinnamon-sugary foam that seemed to come out of the most magical espresso machine humanity has ever known. (Note: I’m not embarrassed to say that after the first bite, I turned to Sun senior photographer Matt Hintsa ’10 and said, “I just want to smear this all over my face right now.” If it were socially acceptable, I think I would have licked my plate.) Even the butter for the bread had a honey-peppery taste. No detail was spared.
One of the most impressive aspects of the dinner is the students’ perfect execution of the etiquette of service, such as holding the napkins behind their backs while serving the hors d’oeuvres and then offering it at the appropriate times, or introducing the wine from one side of the table and walking around to the other side to fill the lady’s glass before returning to fill the gentleman’s. But to consider how students planned, marketed, set up, cooked and served the entire meal, the placement of the napkins was probably the least difficult part of the project.

Up next for the Guest Chefs Series is Todd English’s dinner on April 26.