No doubt there are many upscale dining spots in Jacksonville, especially since the Town Center Mall opened and inspired several small neighborhoods to accept the challenge and introduce some really excellent restaurants in their centers as well. But, one has to wonder, where do all the inventive chefs come from? Every city in the country has a great need for many of these talented folks.
There are certainly good culinary arts schools all over the USA, some of them internationally known—like Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. But how many students can these schools graduate each year? Imagine our surprise when we learned that there is a fine School of Culinary Arts in our very own city. As a matter of fact, FSR Magazine (Full Service Restaurants) has listed the Program in the top 20 in the country. And the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation has accredited it as an Exemplary Program.
The program is sited on the North Campus of Florida State College of Jacksonville (FSCJ) in the northwest of our city. The students and professor chefs run the restaurant entirely and all foods are prepared in the program's facilities. Lunches are offered 5 days weekly dinners twice weekly when school in session. Usually the menus are themed to countries (such as Italy or Mexico) or parts of the USA ( like the Northwest or Hawaii).
After learning all this, I decided that a reservation at a lunch function was definitely in order for one of our mystery tours in Jacksonville and environs. We chose a Tuesday menu which centered on Italy. We enjoyed a 4-course meal consisting of a soup starter (white bean), a salad (with a dab of caviar over fresh & crunchy greens) , delicious lasagna and a scrumptious cannoli for dessert. This entire feast cost only $9.00.
Though the food was really wonderful, the most enjoyable part of the meal was interacting with the students who served at our white-tablecloth & napkins seating. Some were just starting the program and were naturally a little nervous and shy. Some were even near graduation and tried to help the novices quietly and tactfully. Best of all, we saw students of several different ethnicity and ages from those fresh out of high school to folks in their 40s and 50s who wanted to change careers. The professors introduced themselves as the meal progressed and asked for our impressions of the meal, the service, and the students working at our table.
One of our waiters was a gentleman in his 50s who had just retired from the military and decided that he was ready to retire and had always wanted to work in the food industry. He was in his second year of the program and was enjoying it immensely. He was not at all nervous. One young girl was a recent high school graduate and this was her first semester in the Program. Her hands shook a little and she did look to an older student to help her with such decisions as from which side of the diner she should serve. She smiled tremulously at us but when she could see that we were there to support her not to criticize or laugh at her efforts, she warmed up and became more relaxed. It appeared to us that all the other diners were equally pleasant and happy to talk with the students.
This experience was quite enjoyable on all levels and we vowed to return again and bring some other folks with us. Reservations are permitted for 6 persons or less. With this excellent program here in Jacksonville, our city should not want for trained people in all phases of the culinary arts.
It should be noted that the restaurant facility will be moving. Call the school for new directions.