GTPulse: Restaurant Heroes at Lobdell’s Teaching School
I have a maddening love affair with restaurant work. It’s the high school boyfriend that I can’t seem to let go of. I’ve worked in restaurants so long that it’s become a security blanket. You learn a lot about food and drinks, but more than that, you learn about people. I know if you’re going to send your food back by the way you complained about the bread. I know whether you want me to be a stand-up comedian during service or if you prefer simple and quiet efficiency. I know if you’re going to tip at the end of the night. But despite the stress, the fast-paced decision making, and dealing with a spectrum of personalities, I still go back for more. I don’t carry the weight of restaurant work around with me. The end of a bad shift is just the prelude to a clean slate on the next one. And the hope of being better tomorrow is always there to comfort you, along with a shift drink and a cigarette.
I forget that people choose restaurant work out of passion and not necessity. As I watched the culinary students at Lobdell’s tentatively listen to their instructor read what the specials for the day were, I was reminded.
“What’s a sweetish mustard sauce?” one inquired about a meatball dish.
“Swedish. Not sweet as in, ‘I’m sweet on you,” Patty gently explained.
Patty Cron-Huhta is the Front-of-the-House Coordinator at Lobdell’s Teaching School, a restaurant that is run exclusively by the Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City. Together she and Chef Joel Papcun make sure operations at Lobdell’s run smoothly, but it’s the culinary students that will be prepping, cooking, and serving at the restaurant all in the name of their education. A menu featuring the culinary work of students still in school hasn’t scared off the masses. Opened in 2004, it’s only become more popular.
When reservations open twice a year for one week in September and one week in January, Patty brings in a few extra hands to keep up with the rushing stream of calls. For three days straight, she and a few paid former students take call after call until the calendar for the semester is full. The restaurant tucked away within the Northwestern Michigan College Great Lakes campus gets booked solid four months ahead of time. Not too shabby for a teaching school in a foodie town. One look at the menu and it’s easy to see why.
The ingredients are mostly local, and the dishes are accessibly upscale. A filet with herb butter and potatoes comes with a housemade soup or salad and runs you $15. Fresh scallops with house bacon and maple butter sauce will cost you $16.
The students are all studying to take on jobs in the hospitality industry, with the bulk of them interested in being a chef. Student Mikayla Brady is in her last semester and is dreaming about the restaurant she hopes to own someday.
“Eventually I would like to open my own restaurant. I wanna be my own boss. I am a boss so it needs to happen,” she said as her eyes crinkled into a smile behind her mask.
She’ll have to cut her teeth at someone else’s restaurant before venturing out on her own, a plan she’s already set in motion.
“I’m going down to Tennesee to stag at Blackberry Farm. If I stag and they like me they’re going to hire me.”
Close pal and fellow culinary student Tanna Knapp, is taking a different route and has found through her studies that she’s keener on managing front of house operations.
“I personally don’t want to be a chef,” she said. “If I could work in a test kitchen the rest of my life I would. But I like the front of the house side of it. Learning about bartending and management and stuff like that.”
Whether working FOH or BOH is their end game, all students will experience both during their time as working at Lobdell’s. There’s long been a war waging between FOH and BOH staff and Patty works to negate that.
“A server can make or break your business,” she said. “They want to be on the culinary end of things and cook and prepare food. Most of them don’t want to be out in the dining room, they always say, ‘I don’t like people.’ Well you work with just as many in the kitchen as you do out there. If you don’t like people, you’re in the wrong business. If they want to run their own restaurant someday they need to understand what a server goes through.”
A perk of working both is that the students who are serving know the menu offerings well. Each semester students will create a menu of their own based on what’s in season and Chef Joel will select items to go on the next semesters Lobdell’s menu. His selections are based on balance of taste, and balance of what kitchen stations are being utilized. The different stations like saute, cold, and grill have to be balanced in their workload so students can have hands-on experience equally distributed. Plating is something they’re also responsible for. Chef doesn’t mind if they get fancy, but he poses questions to them about considering timeliness when things get busy. Recipes are worked and reworked to perfection. The end product is something that makes paying only $15 feel like stealing.
Tips are distributed among all of the students at the end of a shift, a small reward for executing another shift. Their satisfaction comes from a mix of creativity, hard work, high praise, and working with their fellow students that have come to feel like family. It’s a theme that will follow them throughout their restaurant careers.
Lobdell’s has been rearranged to comply with Covid-19 safety guidelines. Five tables were removed to ensure social distancing, and masks are worn by all. The kitchen staff not only wears a face mask but also a face shield because they’re in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time. This hasn’t dampened their spirits, however. If anything it has better equipped them to roll with the punches and develop a little extra grit when times get tough inside the kitchen, and out. Mikayla knows it’s just another part of the job
“If you love something, you can’t be afraid of it. This might be a rough patch for everyone but, it hasn’t stopped customers from coming in and it hasn’t stopped us from working hard. If you love it, you find a way to do it.”
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