Hicks' Weekly Dish: NAIT a great culinary secret - originally published Edmonton Sun, Nov. 6, 2013
NAIT’s Culinary School outlets
Ernest’s Dining Room, Fresh Express, Retail Meat Market
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
There’s a culinary secret in this town.
The secret has been revealed time after time. Yet a secret it continues to be.
At NAIT, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, one can eat like a king at peasant prices, have champagne tastes on a beer budget.
A three-course “table d’hote” dinner in Ernest’s fine-dining room costs $35 per person and comes with an additional “amuse bouche” (a mini-appetizer unto itself) and a between-course sorbet to “cleanse the palate.”
At Fresh Express, a fragrant, light, made-from-scratch fish ‘n’ chips rings in at $6.75.
At the NAIT Retail Meat Store, beautiful cuts of fresh meat, from rib roast to rouladen, can be had at two-thirds the cost elsewhere.
First and foremost NAIT is a teaching institution. The hospitality & culinary school’s food outlets are part of the educational experience. Guided by teachers, chefs-in-learning need people to enjoy the fruit of their labour, hence the “living laboratories” of Ernest’s Dining Room and the fast-food-from-scratch Fresh Express. The meat store not only sells the result of student knife-skills but is a classroom for wrapping, labelling, presentation and customer service skills.
Last Friday, four of us dined at Ernest’s — white linen, cutlery laid out to perfection, a parade of wine glasses.
Three opted for the five-course table d’hote fixed menu, created and prepared by student chefs under the watchful eye of an instructor or two.
The entrée, bison meatloaf wrapped in house-smoked bacon, was as good as any bison to be found in this city. The fixed-menu apple/sweetened onion tart and vanilla thyme ice cream dessert was a festival of flavour.
I opted for hickory-smoked Prince Edward Island mussels and crusted sable fish, and could not have been happier. The BBQ-like hickory in the fresh mussels beautifully blended with a Thai-like lime broth. The chefs-in-training nailed the tricky business of cooking sablefish; Overcooking renders sablefish into an oily mush, but this one was perfect, and was well complemented by a mascarpone risotto.
All this, for four, in a beautiful dining room with exceptional service, came out to $138 (excluding drinks and tip).
Fresh Express is a breakfast and lunch fast-food outlet where culinary students get their first real-life experience/shock of churning out good-quality, made-from-scratch fast food to fellow hungry students who want it NOW.
Fresh Express has the usual wraps, hamburgers and chicken fingers. But nothing comes out of a bag. Every day, one student team creates its own “special”, i.e. a breakfast wrap, Eggs Benedict or banana-bread French toast. The only rule, says supervisor James Szutarski, is food costs must not exceed $3 per serving.
The Retail Meat Store is a delight, always with interesting selections depending on what the students are learning. “There’s no filler here,” says supervisor Rob Povey with pride. “It’s top-quality meat. We have our own smoke house. Everything we produce, we sell.”
If you’re lucky, fresh-baked goods from baking classes will show up in the early afternoon at NAIT’s Common Market food station. “If it’s not sold, it ends up in the garbage,” says Szutarski, “and nobody wants that.”
Both Ernest’s and the Fresh Express are close to the north-end entrance of the main NAIT building entrance just off 118th Avenue. The Retail Meat Store, open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, is tucked in a corner at NAIT’s Common Market fast-food fair. Fresh Express is open from 7 a.m. to lunch-time. Students handle the cooking from 9 a.m. on. Plan ahead for Ernest’s. It’s closed when the culinary school is not in session, and hours can vary.
Congratulations to the Downtown Business Association for the best pre-rodeo Chili Cook-off event in 20 years, last Friday in Churchill Square. The weather was perfect, the square beautifully decorated as 19 restaurants and competitors competed. The champ proved to be Murrieta’s chicken, chorizo, buttermilk and roasted corn chili as invented and brewed by sous-chefs Jason Mord and Tillie McDonald.
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