I catch chef Mike McCombe as he’s delegating on the fly to two pupils going in opposite directions. Slowing down a bit, he greets me and asks if I’m ready to put on an apron, the urgency carrying him across the room hardly undercutting his joviality.
Surveying the scene around the corner of this massive kitchen -- several times it evokes The Overlook from The Shining -- he adds some more steadying words to the frantic orchestra being played out at so many prep stations: hurried sounds of whisks being turned in bowls; the back end of chef’s knives meeting counting boards; walk-ins, low boys, and soon, oven doors opening and closing, the syncopation something pleasant.
Speeding by again, he pauses to apologize: “It’s a bit crazy today, especially since our other chef is out.” So, with everyone either buzzing by or busy about one of many stainless steel tables -- each the perfect size for a snout to tail breakdown of any little piggy unfortunate enough to stop in for directions -- I was inspired to do just what I did the first time I stepped into a bustling kitchen: stay out of the way.
McCombe, however, would have none of that. Like any good chef, he’s calm and collected, an apparent litany of things being checked off in his mind. A CIA grad like his partner, Mark Gage, his lengthy resume has seen him hold his own at kitchens at The MGM Grand Las Vegas and The Las Vegas Hilton where high end frequently meets high turnover. So, with more than 40 diners from the local rotary club soon to fill the program’s restaurant, Aspirations, he’s hardly worried. On a day teeming with lifelong instruction, he knows his second year students are fit for the task.
He leads me into an immaculate walk-in box to retrieve a beautiful LDL rich butter sculpture by one of his students before disappearing again. While hardly a croqeumbouche (you can actually eat that), it was, via it’s simple emphasis on presentation, an example of one of the many lessons the culinary program at Middle Bucks Institute of Technology conveys to its students.
First year students of the three-year program come in the morning prior to returning to their respective high school. They learn basics such as proper knife handling, food safety, and how to read and convert a recipe. At 10:30 a.m., the second and third year students arrive for a five-day weekly program that ensures soon after starting the school year, they have far more skills in the kitchen than the layman.
Fully recognized by the ACF (American Culinary Federation), the skill set and experience the program provides routinely places students in top programs such as The CIA, Johnson and Wales and The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. Just McCombe’s off-the-top-of-his-head litany of positions filled by former students is impressive: GM at Thomas Keller’s Per Se; sous chef at Morimoto NYC; chef at Torrey Pines; dining room manager at Buddakan NYC; various positions at The Union League, Four Seasons, and the Spring Mill Country Club.
Distinguished alumni routinely drop by for revelatory classes; Amy Levin of London’s Ooosha Raw Culinary Artistry has provided classes on raw food and raw chocolates; former Johnson and Wales instructor Joe Aponte has given pastry demos.
“This is rotten,” McCombe assesses of a bowlful of tarragon. “Do we have any dry?” he asks and the student hurries off. Addressing several others across the room: “here’s the dressing you need. You guys need to know what your orders are so you can start cooking them.” And then he pauses to show proper cutting technique to a student preparing one of the day’s dessert selections; “you have to score it first,” he says, tracing the blade across the cake’s surface.
Across the table, Clara Germiller applies a simple bit of improvisation for another dessert: small balloons are used to make thin chocolate baskets. Once solidified, the cups will bid adieu to their respective red balloons ahead of cradling either milk chocolate or white chocolate cappuccino mousse -- either way, something that sounds potentially transcendent.
“I want to open my own bakery,” she says. That of course, would come after pastry studies at The Restaurant School where she intends to learn more about wedding cakes while going well beyond her “pound cake base.”
“You’re certainly good enough to open your own,” one apparent fan chimes in before carrying on with his rounds.
As Chef McCombe stops to detail everyday chores -- “we bake our own bread and raise our own spinach and herbs in our garden” -- the questions come in from apt pupils who quickly return to tasks that clearly need to get done now.
“Chef, for the yeast, do we split it in half?” the student’s aspect just beginning to approximate that of his professional counterparts. Urgency is there, along with a commitment -- I could say a fledgling masochistic bent -- to the de rigueuer demands of the kitchen that will later allow them to say with offhand pride -- as Chef McCombe later does -- "yeah, we got slammed."
Referring to the beautifully fresh spinach, McCombe picks up where he left off.
“We compost our vegetable ends,” he says ahead of detailing some of the herbs (they’ve grown up to 27) informed by said compost: chives, basil, mint, coriander, lavender, and many more. “Our Landscape Design and Horticulture division has been putting in hydroponics. We’re putting in planter boxes in the fall for heartier root vegetables,” he says.
Tomatoes, along with broccoli, cauliflower, and squash will be ready for harvest once the students return from summer vacation. Carrots and beets are some of the winter options, along with hydroponically grown lettuce.
This base is added to by sourcing ingredients from local farms such as Maximuck’s -- he stresses keeping the school’s money in the local community, which will keep the community full of rich farmland -- and the chef’s own extensive garden. A studied forager, McCombe has been known to bring in wild chanterelles, asparagus, and ramps from the woods of Point Pleasant -- the last in particular standing as a fine seasonal lesson.
And then, as he begins to delve into how this all relates to teaching sustainability -- the fire alarm sounds.
While not a staple of many a professional kitchen -- unless you’ve seriously messed up -- the alarm and the ensuing evacuation of the kitchen and dining area is just another learning experience (i.e. timing, knowing your equipment and cooking temperatures, as well as proper expediting).
During the wait outside [nothing major happened] and the ensuing return, I talk to some of the students about their plans for the future and their sources of inspiration.
“I’ve been wanting to cook since I was three years old. My family has been inspiring me with Italian Sunday dinners my whole life,” Drew Musolino says, quickly adding, “That was the only time I was able to drink wine.”
As for his plans?
Without hesitating: “I’m going to get into one of the big schools-- Lincoln Institute of Technology or The CIA,” his eyes displaying the requisite resolve.
“I would like to be a personal chef with an emphasis on nutrition. So perhaps working for athletes, but my main goal is to get extremely far in this career,” Musolino concludes as everyone pours back into the kitchen and races back to their stations, their alacrity recalling the cooking shows everyone readily attests to watching.
“Yeah, it’s definitely competitive,” Kristiana Sullivan says with an easy smile. “We’re supportive, but we also want to outdo each other, to show what we can do with our own cooking.”
But the fierceness really comes out, she says, during the district, regional, and national competitions where the school has been well represented in the past.
“I like to learn and figure out techniques -- how to cook sauces or soups,” Ashley Haines says.
To the question of what she’s learned from the program so far, she’s effusive.
“All the different ways to cut vegetables. Different tricks for cutting and peeling apples -- making a bird sculpture for instance. How to make a roux properly; the first few times you add too much flour or butter. Even making a simple sauce like one of the five mother sauces.” [ed. Most people can’t name one.]
“Espagnole,” she quickly replies when asked which of the five she feels is the most important. “The brown sauce because you can use it with a lot of different sauces for chicken or steak dishes and you can add a lot of different ingredients to change the taste.”
She plans to take a year off ahead of going to culinary school -- she’s targeting the prestigious Johnson and Wales -- so that she can travel across Europe and “get an idea for all different types of techniques and cultures and how they make their food.”
Along the way she plans to work, pick up new things, and hopefully learn a new language. “I want to go there [college] with a developed set of skills so that I can teach them something,” she says with brio.
Sullivan, along with two other students, may be taking a similar trip abroad after completing Bucks County Community College’s two-year culinary program; high fives abound, along with confidence.
As with many of their white jacketed counterparts, they’re brimming with conviction and eager to tell how their connections to food are deeply rooted in family and early experience.
“My great grandparents owned a bakery in Philly. Cooking reminds me of home,” Sullivan says.
For Kelsey Schmidt, it’s a way to bring back times spent cooking with her father. “It allows me to be in the kitchen with him again, to make me feel like I am at home. We made simple foods and it grew into Chinese food, French onion soups, and various chicken dishes -- he was experimental and would come up with his own recipes.”
Sullivan is set on rocking a mean cupcake shop sometime soon, with her current specialty -- orange blossom cupcakes! -- supplying ample evidence that she’s on the right path.
Morgan Leitz, who grew out of her affection for baking -- “I could never get it right,” she says -- sees herself opening a restaurant after following up study at Bucks with four years at Johnson and Wales. Morgan’s mention of the thrill of experimentation is something everyone else readily acknowledges as a prime motivating force. It’s what underlies their fierce desire to hone their skills -- they want to ensure themselves the greatest possible chance of bringing their creativity, their individual take on cuisine to bear.
Then it’s the big moment: service for 42 guests in the dining room right through the set of double doors. Based on a rotation that smartly allows a glimpse at all aspects of the restaurant business, some students take their turn as bussers and servers, with one, a calm, self-assured redhead in black dress, running the show as manager.
And of course, instruction through delegation is seen inside the kitchen as well.
“Hey Tyler, between you and Junior, you’re in charge. When I come back in twenty minutes I want it to look like a catalogue for fishing gear,” McCombe says before leaving to address the assembled rotary club members. Awe mingles with pride as the double doors swing.
The frenzied mechanics of the kitchen gives way to a much more relaxed, yet still arduous clean up. Prep for the next day is wrapped up: parboiled rice is placed into containers; fresh herbs are left out to dry or put away. Foot long squeegees squeak in smooth pulls across steel tops. Sullivan, fulfilling her duty as sous chef, checks and rechecks the laundry list of prep items needed to be completed, as well as the prep instructions for the morning.
I step out into a now empty banquet room to enjoy my lunch, a solid rendition of a classic: Veal Oscar.
The breading is reminiscent of that of a flounder francaise. Light, airy, and redolent of egg, it is a perfect match for a lightly creamy hollandaise that stands out in two ways: it’s fresh (the sauce is made with uncooked eggs) and it gleefully envelopes sweet, moist lump crab meat. Lemon sharpens both the sauce and the perfectly cooked asparagus.
The obvious winning combination of these elements with that of tender veal makes dishes such as this a must for any burgeoning chef’s repertoire. “Many of them will work at restaurants that have at least a few of the classics,” McCombe, says, quick to point out that these are dishes that everyone knows.
They’re also the dishes that people order too many times. But, there’s no use trying to sway the dining public to try new things if you can’t put out a stellar eggplant parmesan or beef bourguignon.
Back in the kitchen, I run into Drew Musolino again. He pauses in his cleanup to tell me about his own busy prep-work: working as a server and busser at both PA Soup and Seafood and in Doylestown, ahead of a return to Tir Na Nog NYC in the summer where he’ll provide assistance with kitchen prep (many students hold restaurant jobs, with a work-based coordinator from the school regularly checking on their progress).
“And he became an ACF member on his own -- he goes to meetings, takes notes, and participates in their discussions,” McCombe proudly notes.
Equally impressive is the inquisitiveness on display, the wonder evinced when he uses a few hanging tiny bales of tarragon to relate how transformative cooking can be. “Just something as simple as this," he says, going on to relate the difference fresh herbs can impart. This is of course coming from someone whose first cooking lessons came from being instructed on how to make the Sunday gravy as early as the age of three (hint: it doesn’t come from a jar and it definitely does not involve imposter garlic).
And right after he proudly shows me the marks left from cuts, burns, and oil splashes -- the day’s nth display of glorious, empowering pride -- McCombe is congratulating another student on how he handled the pressures of being head waiter.
“You had a certain amount of class out there Jack,” he says, beaming. “But you get frustrated when things aren’t perfect. You just have to pick up and move on.”
Off to Arizona State’s culinary program after his senior year, Jack Fisher does indeed seem hard on himself. As he’s turned inward, seemingly replaying the course of the luncheon, McCombe earnestly recounts his graduation project -- the culmination of 40 hours of research -- while Fisher modestly adds commentary.
“Yea, a light tomato sauce over pasta with pancetta-- it was like a carbonara without eggs,” he blithely says of a dish McCombe hails. This amidst a project he says that combined lecture (to his fellow acolytes), cuisine, and wine pairings in covering the weighty topic of Italy’s disparate regional cuisines.
As for the lunch, McCombe reminds me that his students are just beginning to show their potential. “These kids are amazing, but it’s only a second year menu. Third years, they’ll roll out things like braised burgundy short ribs with winter vegetables…mustard rubbed cod with walnut crust…and diver scallops with quail egg...tandoori Cornish hens served with lemon grass and a nest of phylo...and almond mascapone and fresh raspberry tuile, and creme caramel done with a chocolate tuile cigarette.”
This progression comes after the students obtain -- in their second year -- a ServSafe certification that comes with a solid understanding of “the flow of food” from purchasing, prepping, storing, cooking, and holding to reheating. In their third year, they can expand on skills such as pasta making and charcuterie; simple selections are exchanged for squid ink or lobster ravioli and harmonically spiced sausage made from game.
At the same time, seniors will be charged with developing several different concept menus, each of which they must cost completely. Their menus must be tailored to the design of both their hypothetical restaurant and kitchen, with equipment factoring into decision making (one can only have so many broilers and burners).
“These kids, they want to be challenged,” McCombe says. “They watch all the cooking shows. You can’t keep their attention with simple, boring recipes and tasks,” he says.
But, it’s his love for cooking and his desire to pass along its sense of magic, along with solid career skills, that makes this job easy for him. “You have to have them leaving excited. So much so they’re talking to their friends, they’re telling their family about what they’re doing, and they can’t wait to learn something new-- or experiment at home,” he says.
Out alongside the building, bordered by a truncated course of trilling water, lies the program’s herb garden. Running from smooth green to velvety white, the lavender huddles together like tiny remnants of a prehistoric forest. The leaves numb the mouth, imparting a distinct floral flavor with a sweetness that hints of molasses. “
Cook them on low in some olive oil and let those rich flavors come out,” McCombe suggests. To the right, along the red brick wall is the lemon thyme -- “perfect with white fish,” he says -- which imparts floral notes to the oregano growing ahead of it by the tiny pond. It’s strategically placed next to the loose, draping tarragon; “right here, you’re on your way to a perfect [spaghetti] sauce,” he says.
Further along, McCombe stoops to pick some chives, telling me how the bulbs, rich with their own flavor, will soon yield blossoms perfect for placement atop crab cakes drizzled with basil infused olive oil. And then, sprawling low to the ground are purple tinged leaves of mint, with a few white leaves --spearmint -- on the fringe. “Too many mojitos back home,” McCombe later says with a laugh, in regard to the highly invasive plant.
Of course, McCombe’s direction helped prevent this series of Lilliputian forests from going unnoticed. And that’s exactly what he does for his charges, with each stalk, flower, leave, and stem providing elucidation.
“This is what jump-started our whole push towards instilling a sense of what it means to be organic and sustainable,” he points out. Students learn to identify herbs by sight and smell, while getting to see how they not only enliven, but transform dishes. Health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure (lavender) and aiding digestion (mint), are also applied, which serves to reinforce the program’s focus on healthy cooking (see their student video series here).
Grown with pesticide free, high-grade mushroom soil, the herb garden, and the nearby vegetable garden, gives the students insight into proper cultivation; “it’s grown the right way, without anything that’s detrimental to health, without the same things that diminish flavor,” McCombe says.
The lessons of sustainable, local sourcing isn’t anything foreign to his students though; “they grew up around lots of beautiful Buck’s County farm land, where the right practices are being employed,” he says.
Provided for via a donation by the mother of former student Giacomo Maurizzo, he says the herb garden is an entirely fitting way to pay tribute to someone who demonstrated a mastery for bringing a bouquet of flavors in from the garden.
“It has really added to the program, because where we formerly used stuff from jars, now they’re using good fresh product and they know where it comes from, which countries and cultures have used it for centuries,” he says. “It’s really catapulted our program forward.”
Before I leave, I catch a quick meeting between McCombe and Gregory Smith, who heads up the Landscape Design and Horticulture program. “What we’re doing here, it’s completely sustainable,” Smith says. “It’s cross curricular -- my kid’s don’t know the purpose of them [the herbs], while they [the culinary students] don’t know how to grow them.”
It’s just one of many interactions at the school that serve to stoke the imagination and expand the knowledge base of McCombe’s budding chefs, whose fervent search for innovation will soon be matched by a running field of solar panels opposite their fecund gardens, which will provide 34 percent of the school’s energy needs.
Yeah, the future’s bright.