For the next seven weeks, the Taste of Art Restaurant is offering diners a taste of New Zealand. Located on the ninth floor of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Downtown, the restaurant has a new menu featuring traditional dishes from the region including breaded oysters with horseradish sauce, Maori barbecued salmon, kiwi-lime tart and more.
Part of the International Culinary School of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Taste of Art is a student-run restaurant that doubles as the "a la carte kitchen" class. Every quarter, new students come in and the menu changes.
Instructors Roger Levine and David Russo led this quarter's eight students through an intense process to design a new menu featuring their own culinary creations and New Zealand food.
Week one of the 10-week course was a brainstorming frenzy. The students got together, threw out ideas and discussed the different foods they could make. Through a secret ballot, they narrowed down the list until they had their menu items and their featured country.
"We incorporated that when the school rebranded the culinary program to be the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh," Mr. Levine said. "We wanted to bring in a different element of ... different countries."
Past quarters have given customers a taste of food from Mexico, Burma, Ireland, India, New England, Brazil and Italy.
Under each food category -- soup, appetizer, salad, sandwich, entree and dessert -- is a dish from the featured country. While these dishes are predetermined by the teachers, everything else is up to the students.
Week two the students began to design and prepare their recipes. They are encouraged to work on them to give the dishes their own special flavors. Students often will prepare many variations of the same dish before it is up to standards.
"Just because we have a recipe, it's not written in stone. We want them to develop it, we want to make it unique," Mr. Levine said. "One of the other things that they try to do is take items that they're familiar with and [ask], 'How do you make it relevant to the culinary world in 2013?' "
Born and raised in Louisiana, Jodie Bimle likes to add a Southern influence to many of her dishes.
"I like to try to make things that I grew up eating, but maybe put it on a different level or do something different with it," she said. She made Red Beans and Rice Fritters with Andouille sausage.
Samantha Kanaga wanted to create a different kind of salad, so she put golden corn sauteed with olive oil and butter and mixed with jalapeno peppers on a bed of bibb and romaine lettuce with a lime-juice dressing. She topped it with shredded manchego cheese.
Brandon Crytzer is a fan of the Monte Cristo sandwich, so he made his own. The result was Swiss cheese, herb-roasted turkey breast and cranberry sauce squeezed between two slices of Amish white bread that was then egg battered and pan-fried. He made everything but the cheese from scratch.
Alyssa Trocki grew up cooking with her uncle, so she worked on perfecting one of their creations, Spaghetti Squash. Served with asparagus, mushrooms and parmesan cheese, the squash added an unexpected twist.
Although each student had his or her own recipe to focus on, no one worked alone, Ms. Bimle said. "It's a collaborative effort on everything. When someone does one of the recipes, we all have a chance to kind of put our touch on it and give our opinion on how it needs to be plated and the flavors."
Mr. Levine and Mr. Russo also are on hand to review their student's creations. Last week, students paraded a number of recipes before Mr. Levine for review. Among them were puff pastries filled with chocolate and brie, sitting in white and chocolate drizzle; a New Zealand dish of fresh mussels arranged artfully in a clam-based broth; and a breakfast soup that included bacon, potatoes and a poached egg, topped with an herb waffle.
"Waistline be gone," the instructor said when Ms. Bimle put down a bowl of her creamy, homemade coffee-bean ice cream.
The professors said they prefer to take a hands-off approach and challenge their students to think critically about their choices.
"We want them to stumble and that's realistic. We might see things, and we kind of might say, 'Well, if we did this maybe it would be better,' but we want them to learn through trial and error, not just be the parents and say, 'If you do this, this is going to work out,' " Mr. Levine said.
Added Mr. Russo, "I have to edit myself sometimes, I have to say. I want to put my ideas in there, and I'm getting better at just keeping quiet."
Now that the restaurant is open (the first day was Tuesday, July 23), the students will work together to fill roles in the kitchen and in the front. Every week, students will rotate the positions of sous chef, sautee chef, grilladon, entremetier, garde manger, patissier, tournant, waitstaff and maitre'd.
"This class is definitely operating like a restaurant, albeit there's a bigger crew than a normal restaurant would be as far as the amount of people coming through here," Mr. Russo said.
Taste of Art will be open until Sept. 4, but customers can have one last meal on Sept. 10 when the class will hold its end-of-the-semester buffet.
Taste of Art is located at 420 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown. It is open 11:15 a.m. to 12:30 Mon. through Weds., and reservations can be made at 412-291-6532.
Kitoko Chargois: email@example.com or 412-263-1088.