When the film "Julie and Julia" opened last year, Cordon Bleu culinary programs across the country celebrated with events in their school restaurants, inviting the public to take a peek inside the North American version of the school that inspired Julia Child.
But Pittsburgh's local Cordon Bleu program, the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, was left out of the party because it lacked a restaurant.
That will change this afternoon when Azure 18, a white tablecloth restaurant on the 18th floor of the Clark Building, 717 Liberty Ave., Downtown, opens to the public for the first time.
This isn't the only change facing the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. It's in the process of changing its name to Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts, pending final approval from relevant accreditation bodies. Career Education Corp., which owns the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute along with the other North American Cordon Bleu programs, hopes that all 17 of their schools will be unified by this new name.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Culinary is focused on its restaurant, which can seat up to 50 and will be open for lunch Monday through Friday. A new class of culinary arts, pastry arts and hotel and restaurant management students will rotate through every 28 days. The restaurant will be students' last class before they head off to required externships at restaurants, catering companies, hotels and resorts.
Working restaurants are widely considered an important component of a culinary arts education.
"We were always kind of looked down upon in a way, because we didn't have that fine dining restaurant that students would rotate through as part of the curriculum," said Bill Hunt, the institute's dean of culinary arts.
The Art Institute, another Pittsburgh Culinary School, also has a fine dining restaurant, A Taste of Art, in its building on Boulevard of the Allies. It's open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.
Some culinary school restaurants have national reputations, such as L'Ecole at the French Culinary Institute in New York and American Bounty Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
In the past, Pennsylvania Culinary Institute has gone back and forth about operating a restaurant staffed by students. Mr. Hunt sees a clear benefit for hotel and restaurant management students, because "There's nothing in the curriculum that can duplicate the actual experience of waiting on a customer."
But for students in the culinary and pastry programs, a successful restaurant class should duplicate the high-pressure experience of working in a professional kitchen.
For now, Azure 18 will offer only a three-course menu for $12 to ensure that there is enough work to keep the kitchen busy. Culinary school instructor Shawn Culp primarily will be responsible for creating that atmosphere. Mr. Culp is an American Culinary Federation Certified Executive Chef and has been accepted to audition for the American Culinary Olympic team in Chicago this March.
During months that the student population peaks, the restaurant may open for dinner as well. While culinary school enrollments across the country fell during the recession, there are signs that these numbers are starting to rise again.
Angela Loiacono, manager of corporate communications for Career Education Corp., said that as of Oct. 31, 2009, the culinary schools have seen an increase of 21 percent in student population.
Pennsylvania Culinary Institute started to see enrollment come back this past summer, Mr. Hunt said. January is traditionally a less popular start date, but last week the school enrolled 90 new students, a satisfactory number even in September or October, the most popular enrollment months.
On Thursday, all the Cordon Bleu schools are holding a concurrent event in honor of the name change, which will include a Cordon Bleu culinary competition. Three alumni chefs will team up with local celebrities to put their spin on sauteed chicken with fresh herbs.
The Pittsburgh event will be held on the 18th floor of the Clark Building from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Attendees will sample the three team's efforts and pick a winner. The event also will include appetizers and desserts, as well as sample food from the Azure 18 menu. Cost is $25 and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Ronald McDonald House.
To make a reservation for lunch at Azure 18 or to purchase tickets for Thursday's event, call 412-325-3588. Event tickets can be purchased online at http://lecordonbleuchallengepittsburgh.eventbrite.com.