The best way for chefs in training to practice is through real-time experience. Only then can aspiring culinary talents truly get a feel for what working in a kitchen is like.
While this principle is applicable to any job, it may not always be possible. Students at Monroe College are fortunate to have the opportunity that the Dining Lab sets forth—and the public is lucky to be able to reap the benefits.
The Dining Lab is an entirely student-run restaurant operating in a well-disguised space that was formerly a cafeteria at New Rochelle’s Monroe College. Approximately 35 students, teacher’s assistants and interns, comprising two classes and a third management class, work each night to make the Dining Lab the success it is; the Wednesday night reservation I snagged was the very last available for the semester.
Frank Costantino, the dean of the School of Hospitality Management and the Culinary Arts at Monroe, started the Dining Lab program in New Rochelle about a year and a half ago. Costantino owned a farm-to-table restaurant upstate, long before that movement blossomed, where he raised his own chickens, ducks and rabbits. A seasoned professional, Costantino has worked in culinary education for 30 years, the last five of which have been at Monroe. He said it took a couple of years to bring to life the fine dining experience the Dining Lab currently offers and for the ultimate cooking classroom to be open to the public.
Diners, many of whom are students or Westchester residents, are offered a three-course gourmet dinner for a fixed price of $18.95. The Dining Lab is open three nights a week, Tuesday through Thursday, with three seatings each evening; 6:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.
This fall, the lab will also operate on Friday nights, which is exciting for students enrolled in that sure-to-be-busy session.
You can also check out the Dining Lab during the daytime, when students run a café, Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.. The café boasts homemade breads, baked goods, salads and more.
Costantino makes sure even those who consider themselves strictly bakers are learning how to make soups and sandwiches to be certain each trainee graduates having been exposed to cooking of all kinds.
The Dining Lab may be an experimental eatery of sorts, but its kitchen uses the highest quality ingredients, much like any high-end restaurant. The team sources locally as much as possible, primarily from the North Fork of Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley. At the nearby New Rochelle farmers market, where students have forged relationships, Costantino opts for naturally raised meats and poultry. All fish is farm raised as well.
The Dining Lab also operates a garden on campus in which students grow all herbs and greens used at the restaurant.
Costantino and a couple of chef colleagues create the menu, which changes twice per semester. There are a couple of things he must consider when constructing what I found to be impressive offerings. First, Costantino takes care to ensure the items reflect a culmination of skills learned in each level of training, from cutting vegetables to those more complex. He aspires to create simple yet flavorful dishes that are fresh, interesting and indicative of the time of year.
This goal was certainly achieved in my meal, which began with a baba ghanoush amuse-bouche and ended with a small plate of assorted cookies. In between, a friend and I selected the salad with grilled local peaches and fresh egg tagliatelle with eggplant in a cream sauce with a hint of tomato. The fruit was succulent, and the sauce on the pasta had a great flavor to it. Our delectable main courses were chicken prepared two ways, in a barbecue sauce and as a corn dog, and salmon with couscous and vegetables.
The standout dessert was an intriguing trio of local melons. This creative, seasonal dish was beautifully constructed with a great balance of flavor to match. I thought the super sweet honeydew soup, piquant cantaloupe ginger sorbet and chunks of watermelon complemented one another perfectly; they were also delicious consumed separately.
While the Lab is currently closed until October as students are on break, reservations for the fall semester are available beginning in mid-September. I am eager to return on a Thursday evening, when the restaurant features live entertainment provided by students and staff. Costantino has even performed.
Time will tell what budding stars, whether culinary or musical, will emerge from this wholly local spot in New Rochelle.