Running a culinary school requires teaching students must-know techniques along with the latest trends. Savor, the 11th and latest teaching restaurant from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), does both, while hitting on one of the restaurant industry’s key trends in full-service dining: making the meal an immersive experience.
In the case of this San Antonio dining room, both the customers and the student employees get to share in the experience. Instead of a straightforward menu, diners get to craft their own multicourse, prix fixe meal from a larger selection of dishes—a move that both feeds into consumers’ desire for customization and gives students the opportunity to prepare a variety of ethnic dishes. The menu, after all, follows the school’s curriculum of “the great cuisines of the world,” with dishes from Asia, America, South America and Europe in an upscale-casual setting, says Waldy Malouf, senior director of food and beverage operations for the school.
Working at Savor is students’ final class before they graduate from the two-year program. Students spend half the semester in the front of house and half in the kitchen.
The 2,500-square-foot, 62-seat restaurant, which opened in January, is located in a massive complex with nearly 20 other independently run restaurants. “Most of our students work for them,” Malouf says.
Savor’s large kitchen opens to two banquettes, creating a massive chef’s table with a front-row view of the CIA’s students at work. “You’re very much involved in what’s going on in the kitchen,” Malouf says. “The kitchen takes center stage. You can watch the students work with the chef instructor … That’s what people are looking for even more today than ever, an experience that’s more than just dining.”
Menu formatted for BOH efficiency
Guests are asked to build their own three- or four-course menus from a list of five options per category. Consumers enjoy the choices, to be sure, but the flexibility also allows students to get a full back-of-house experience instead of being trapped behind a nonstop fryer or relegated to a slow salad station, Malouf says. The model builds efficiency as the student chefs gain expertise in preparing each menu item. “It spreads out the work so each one of the students has two to three dishes that will be in those three-course meals,” he says.
Overcoming student-run restaurant challenges
While Savor is unquestionably a working restaurant, it is also a teaching atmosphere, one in which students must learn cooking methods, sanitation, service, grooming, language and more. The costs to run such an endeavor are high, Malouf says. Since the cooks are still learning, there’s higher food waste and error. And because of the school calendar, the restaurant can only be open 220 days a year, five days per week. A four-course meal costs $46; a three-course one is $38, he says, calling it “market price or a little bit less.” Students are not allowed to handle cash or accept gratuities, though satisfied customers can instead leave a “student support charge” donation to the school. Two instructors and two assistants must be at the restaurant in the morning and the evening. “Your management overhead becomes not the industry norm, but double what the industry norm is,” he says.