By JEFFREY WEISS
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS -- The front house manager kept her eye on the customers. The back house manager focused on the orders. The various servers, prep workers and sous-chefs attended to their tasks. Just like a real restaurant.
And why not? The Eagle Cafe is a real restaurant, staffed by juniors in Richardson High School's culinary arts program. The cafe, inside the school on Fridays, has been a weekly second-semester project for 11th-graders for about five years.
Special orders don't upset them. Salad dressing on the side? Cheese left off? No problem.
"You have to work fast," said Faith Banks, the back house boss. "And be very, very organized."
These days, many North Texas districts have culinary arts programs and associated student-run restaurants. But 11 years ago, when Karen Hill started Richardson's culinary arts program, there weren't many local models.
"I had nine kids and no curriculum and no budget," Hill said cheerfully. Now she has about 60 students in the program and works out of a spacious kitchen with enough cookery for a competition -- or a small restaurant.
When Hill decided to start the restaurant, it was among the first of its kind in North Texas, she said. But it was a logical next step for a program designed to give students practical skills they'll need to go on to cooking schools or jobs in the food service industry.
Culinary arts is one of several such programs offered at many local high schools. From auto repair to cosmetology to a variety of tech-related courses, kids graduate with experience and nationally recognized certificates that demonstrate they're ready for hiring or more advanced education.
The Eagle Cafe has some challenges compared with your standard eatery. The 13 juniors enrolled in the "practicum" culinary class have it for only two hours a day, so a lot of prep work has to be done a day or so in advance.
But the cafe pays for itself. On Friday, it served about 60 plates: salads, grilled panini, sandwiches, soup, desserts made from scratch. Any adult can eat there or order takeout. (Call the school to make a reservation or place an order.) Workers in nearby offices regularly take advantage of that.
Laura Shorlo and a co-worker dropped by to pick up their orders Friday. Shorlo found out about the cafe last year when her son, Zak, was a junior working there. Shorlo had nothing but praise for the food -- and the program.
The kids were efficient but not perfect last week. Hill caught a couple of boys not wearing gloves as they chopped fruit. An oven door was left ajar. A soup recipe needed tweaking. But mainly, the students took care of business without much oversight.
The culinary arts program, the students were near-unanimous in saying, has been much harder than they expected.
Food safety, the specific techniques of cleaning a whole fish, the fine points of keeping a sauce creamy -- it's a lot more than baking cakes for grades.
In fact, even baking a cake isn't as easy as you might think. Lauren Domingos, the back house manager, thought she wanted to become a pastry chef when she started the program. But the incredibly specific details needed to produce consistent baked goods came as a shock.
"That's an OCD profession," said Lauren, who now has her sights set on the greater freedom of savory cooking.
Not everybody in the class has professional cooking plans. William Crawford is planning for a college degree in business. But cooking seemed like a skill worth developing, he said.
"I'm on the swim team, so I have to eat a lot," he said.
And he's already figured out that knowing how to cook can have other benefits.
"It helped me out on Valentine's Day," he said.