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Dinners For Free at a Campbell Cooking School — But You Have to Know Someone

On the second floor of the International Culinary Center in Campbell sits the Monte Bello room.

The 24-seat, makeshift dining room serves lunch daily and dinner on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

For free.

The catch is that you have to know someone affiliated with the school in order to get invited to enjoy the multi-course meals that are prepared by the culinary students.

Fortunately, Bruce McCann, president of the culinary school, provided just that opportunity last week for my husband and I to experience dinner there.

The culinary school doesn’t have a license to operate a full-blown restaurant on the premises. But administrators wanted to give students the experience of cooking for real diners. So, they came up with this concept, in which invited guests can partake of a meal for free. At the end of the meal, you’re asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire that ranks the taste, presentation, flavors and cooking of each dish so that the students can get feedback from the experience. Though it’s not required, you also can make a donation of any amount that will be donated to the student scholarship fund. Tips also are appreciated, as your waiter is not a student but an actual professional server.

For dinner, seating begins at 8 p.m., as the students arrive at 6 p.m. to begin prepping for that evening’s menu.

When you are seated, you’ll get a pencil and questionnaire, as well as a printed menu. There’s always a choice of entrees,  at least one of which is vegetarian. Depending upon how many students are working that night, you might also get a choice of appetizers and desserts.

Since there was a tiny crew the night we were there, we only had to choose an entree. Bottled beers and wine by the glass are available for a charge to go along with the meal.

A basket of fresh baked bread made by the students is brought to the table. Soon follows an amuse bouche, an unexpected touch. That evening, it was a crostini topped with lsweet caramelized shallots, bacon and Russian dressing-mayo.

The first course of warm asparagus salad was enormous. Asparagus spears, cooked maybe just a tad longer than they should have been, were buried under a mound of asparagus shavings that had been fried. They lent great texture, but perhaps there were too many shavings to have to dig through to get to the prized spears. A soft-boiled egg had already been broken apart underneath so that the oozy yolk flowed onto the spears.

For my entree, I had the seared artic char in a vibrant sauce of smoked shallots, celery root, apple, raisins and pine nuts. The fish was moist but would have been even better had it been pulled from the pan a little sooner. The dice of bacon was a sight to  behold — perfect confetti-size pieces strewn around the plate. The pinto beans, though, were still crunchy and would have benefited from longer cooking.

My husband’s duck breast and leg were a beautiful medium-rare. Kale was cooked with milk and a pinch of sugar, almost like a more virtuous creamed spinach.

Dessert was individual Sacher cakes, plated prettily with a scoop of smooth white chocolate sorbet. The chocolate cake was moist with a filling of sweet apricot jam.

As we filled out the comment cards, we nibbled on crisp-chewy chocolate macarons.

Not everything may have been cooked perfectly. But much of it was. And you can’t help but feel a twinge of pride, knowing that you may have just tasted the food of a future top chef.

The dining room will go on hiatus for the next few weeks. But lunch and dinner service will start up again June 29. So, start plotting to make friends with someone at the school now so that you, too, can enjoy such an experience. Or better yet, enroll in one of the many amateur or professional classes the school offers because that also qualifies you to dine there.

More: Jacques Pepin Visits the International Culinary Center in Campbell

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