ELLSWORTH — Brookside Restaurant may be a little out of the way, but it’s worth it, and not just for the food. Patrons of the student-run dining establishment at Hancock County Technical Center on the Boggy Brook Road not only get an affordable lunch (one recent lunch special — an 8-ounce sirloin served with roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts and homemade rolls — was offered for $8), but also support local students training in the culinary arts.
Twice each week, students from eight schools around the region converge in the spotless HCTC kitchens to talk menus, ordering, budgeting and finally to roll up their chef’s coat sleeves and cook.
Bill Baker (yes, that really is his name), the program’s director for the past 11 years, directs the budding chefs in carving steaks, steaming Brussels sprouts and, during one recent shift, dotting eyes on a chocolate cream puff swan.
The restaurant is open to the public for lunch each Wednesday from noon to 1:30 p.m., as well as for take-out orders. Students prepare all of the food from scratch: sourdough breads, elaborate gingerbread houses, chicken Florentine, baked stuffed haddock. Local farmers and supermarkets occasionally donate items for the students to prepare
“At the very least I’m going to get them ready for the world of work,” Baker says.
Students rotate through all positions in the restaurant during the two-year program, from hosting to dishwashing. They prepare budgets, order and stock food and clean the kitchen, as well as laundering their own uniforms.
“It’s live work, it teaches them,” said Baker, adding that the students serve an average of 50 lunches each week, as well as staging banquets and catering for local events.
Students who complete the two-year program, offered in conjunction with a high school degree, receive a national certification. There is an option for college credit, and many pursue postsecondary degrees in the culinary or pastry arts.
Recent graduates have gone on to the culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University and the Culinary Institute of America. One works at a bakery in Seattle, another at Disney World in Florida. While at HCTC, student chefs also participate in statewide competitions such as SkillsUSA, where Ellsworth students have won numerous medals in recent years during Top Chef-style cook-offs.
Many land jobs closer to home: at Finn’s Irish Pub, Flexit Café & Bakery, Sips in Southwest Harbor and Bunker’s Wharf, among others.
In a time of historically low unemployment, HCTC’s culinary arts program is a boon for employers: Hancock County has experienced acute shortages of hospitality workers in recent years while tourism numbers have continued to climb. According to a recent Maine Department of Labor report, hospitality is predicted to be one of just three sectors (including health care and professional/business services) to experience gains in the next five years as the economy increasingly shifts to jobs that are service-based, rather than goods-producing.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, a group of first-years (the program is open to those in grades 10 and 11) huddled around computers and cardboard cutouts, designing gingerbread houses for a competition later in the month. Baker urged them to be creative: last year, one of the winning houses had a turret and a frosted Santa Claus waving from the chimney.
The program is not only about practical skills for the world of work, Baker said.
“It’s not just me talking to them about cooking. It’s about life,” how to balance family commitments, finances and have a fulfilling career.
During gingerbread design day, a proud parent of a recent graduate stopped to say hello. His son Avery, who completed the program in 2016 and later got a degree in culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College, recently landed a job on the line at Lolita, a tapas bar in Portland.
“Avery talked about not wanting to go to college,” said his father, Frank Anderson. “Mr. Baker talked him into it.”
HCTC’s Brookside Restaurant, open to the public from noon to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday, is located on the school campus at 112 Boggy Brook Road off Route 1A in Ellsworth. The menu is posted at hancock.ellsworthschools.org. To order take out or for more info, call 667-9729.