Student-designed restaurant now open at CIA in Hyde Park

A look inside Meatball City (CIA | Phil Mansfield)

A look inside Meatball City (CIA | Phil Mansfield)

Consider the meatball: It’s round. It’s plain. It’s predictable. If there’s a simpler foodstuff to be found in your memory or menu, it can only be the pasta that usually accompanies it (or maybe the water that the pasta was boiled in).

Now consider the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the region’s premier provider of the haute and the mighty expensive meal: dishes so rarefied, so glorified, so exotic that it seems a shame to eat them. They should be bronzed and placed on the mantle, there to delight and astound your envious visitors.

As incongruous as it may seem, the meatball and the CIA have found common ground within the Institute’s curriculum. CIA, say hello to Meatball City.

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With its reputation as a provider of skilled and talented chefs in the region and elsewhere around the world, it’s easy to forget that the CIA is an educational institution, and that its educational menu isn’t limited to what goes on around the stove.

The college’s recently instituted “intrapreneurial” bachelor’s degree concentration is a case in point. The program requires students not only to draw on their cooking skills, but also to learn and participate in practices not ordinarily associated with those skills, such as accounting, purchasing and, perhaps most challenging of all, human resources and management skills. The idea is to acquaint matriculating students with the skills necessary to pitch, run and develop a successful food service operation of their own devising in what’s known in the industry as “fast casual” dining.

As that name suggests, a fast-casual restaurant bridges the gap between classic McDonald’s-style fast food and full-table-service eateries. The food is usually more varied and of better quality than assembly-line burgers, but not as pricey as a traditional sit-down-and-be-served restaurant. Typical examples include outlets like Boston Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread.

The concentration begins when several self-selected cohorts of up to 20 students brainstorm and settle on an idea for a unique, practical and (of course) tasty concept. Such things as menu development, facility design, inventory management and sanitation regulation compliance must all support the project.

Once the preliminaries are agreed to, the student groups then pitch their concepts to a panel of industry professionals and faculty. Annette Graham, dean of the CIA’s School of Business and Management Studies, likened the review process to Shark Tank. “It’s very competitive,” she said.

Once chosen, the winning team gets to implement its concept and run every aspect of the idea that it developed, with everything from hiring the help to designing the logo to serving the campus community (and wayfaring visitors) for a full semester.

Associate professor Bill Guilfoyle’s career in the food industry includes a dozen years with the Quilted Giraffe restaurant. He says that amid all the difficulties faced by the student groups, cooperation is the most difficult to achieve.

The idea of group cooperation is another aspect of the “intrapreneurship” idea that runs counter to the CIA’s reputation for producing top-flight chefs. Guilfoyle nods in knowing assent when questioned about the difficulties of helping students on the cusp of careers where the chef is king. “Learning to work with one another is one of the most challenging aspects,” he says. “For fine dining, not so much.”

As for Meatball City, it’s not what you might expect: Instead of pasta, you can have your meatballs served with rice pilaf, polenta or – for traditionalists – a sub roll.

Meatball City will close up shop at the beginning of winter break. Whether it becomes a legend or a memory, a Chipotle or a Chi-Chi’s, only time and taste will tell.

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