The Classroom Kitchen

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Entering District 21 is not like walking into a traditional classroom. Dark wood dining tables and upholstered chairs stand in for desks. There’s no chalkboard; a rich gold banquette lines the wall. And students don’t complete their work on pencil and paper. Assignments are presented on white plates.

District 21 Restaurant is operated by Francis Tuttle Technology Center’s culinary arts program. It is here where students ready to graduate unite the skills and crafts acquired and honed through various culinary classes.

“District 21 is like a capstone class for [students about to graduate],” says Marc Dunham culinary director at Francis Tuttle. “It provides a venue for students to bring what they’ve been learning and practicing into a venue with customers, and bring it into context.”

“We have an advantage over other restaurants in that we can be very experimental and take risks because we are an educational facility … People are a little more adventurous when they step foot in our restaurant because they’re participating in somebody’s education.”

The challenges faced at District 21, he says, are ones that students will encounter in the real world.

“The pressures of time and customers’ wants and needs – we’re trying to incorporate that into the educational experience prior to students going out to get a first job. If the student is engaged, they are better prepared to enter the workforce and be more successful.”

District 21 recently completed its first year in business and is preparing to reopen Aug. 12 with new students in the kitchen. As Dunham points out, patrons to the restaurant tend to be a little more forgiving, but Chef Carlos Martinez, restaurant director at District 21, makes sure that diners receive the best food possible. Students are held to the standard of paying customers, and the kitchen does not allow mistakes to be sent out. If a dish is not executed correctly, says Dunham, the student starts over.

“We have an advantage over other restaurants in that we can be very experimental and take risks because we are an educational facility, and that’s good for us and for Oklahoma City. People are a little more adventurous when they step foot in our restaurant because they’re participating in somebody’s education,” says Dunham.

And part of that education is turning out beautiful plates. Steaks, short ribs, seafood and charcuterie all make regular appearances on a menu that changes on a near-weekly basis.

“We have things that hang around [the menu] for a while, but Chef Carlos likes to be creative, and a lot of what is on the menu is driven by in-season produce along with collaboration by instructors in other parts of the culinary program,” Dunham says.

Desserts served at District 21 are brought in from the pastry lab; the charcuterie plate – a collection of cured meats – are all made in-house. Dunham expects more pasta dishes to be added to the new menu, a great move given that Chris Becker, the owner of Della Terra Pasta – an Oklahoma City kitchen that lovingly prepares fresh pasta by hand – is part of the Francis Tuttle culinary arts team.

“We want as many people to come [to District 21] as possible, because the more they come, the better education these kids receive,” says Dunham. “They will be the next wave of chefs in our state.” 12777 N. Rockwell Ave., Oklahoma City. www.d21dining.com

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