The Kings Family Restaurants chain is in the process of updating its menu, and one of the primary ways it's injecting new blood is through a new partnership with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh's culinary program.
Late last year, the Art Institute held a competition for its students to develop innovative Kings menu items in four categories: grilled cheese, bacon, meatloaf and "menu changers."
Using those categories allowed students to think creatively while remaining true to the Kings home-cooking image, said Kings President Chris Whalen.
"Kings is a family restaurant," he said. "We sell grilled cheese. We sell meatloaf. We sell liver."
But that doesn't mean things can't get tweaked every now and then.
"We wanted to put some fun back into Kings and be a little bolder" within those family restaurant parameters, he said.
Throughout 2014, the winners of the Art Institute competition will be featured on special menus in Kings restaurants. Eventually, some of the items may make their way onto the permanent menu.
The first special menu, coming in March, will feature new takes on grilled cheese -- a couple of Kings in-house-developed recipes, plus at least the first-place winner in the Art Institute grilled cheese category: "Brienini." It was developed by Akron native Jessie Posan, whose name will appear on the menu with her sandwich, which features brie and jam.
A People's Choice contest soon will go live on Kings Facebook page, allowing the public to vote for one of the contest winners to make it to the menu, as well.
Chef Odette Smith-Ransome, who teaches the Art Institute's menu-writing class, said her students love competitions. She holds at least one per quarter, and competing in at least one is a graduation requirement.
Kings gave her its current menu, and Kings Director of Food and Beverage Tony Egizio spoke to the students so they would develop menu items that would fit with Kings demographic and purchasing patterns.
The brie sandwich was a bit of a departure -- brie wasn't on Kings menu previously -- but it didn't stray too far out of bounds to win the top prize in that category.
Needing to stick to Kings' specifications was good real-world training for her students, Ms. Smith-Ransome said.
"They had to take into account how Kings makes things," she said. "They're not going to change their meatloaf recipe," so students had to work with the meatloaf Kings already makes and just tinker with it a bit.
Meanwhile, she sees all sorts of possibilities for future collaborations with the restaurant chain, and she has had conversations with Kings representatives about some. For instance, she could envision working with the Art Institute's Web design department to develop a game that kids could play on their parents' smartphones while they wait for their food. Or the industrial design department could help to develop a mold to make faces for the chain's Frownie Brownies out of white chocolate, which would eliminate the need to hand-frost every brownie face.
But for starters, the focus is on the food.
"It's a collaboration between old and new," she said. "It's kind of amazing when the students become the teachers. The students loved being able to have someone from the industry saying, 'That's cool. Let's put it on our menu.' "
Robert Burns Evening: Traditional Scottish food (Scotch eggs, cheesy tatty scones, chicken Bonnie Prince Charlie and more), single malt Scotch whisky, wine and beer, bagpiping and -- you guessed it -- haggis. 6 p.m. next Thursday, Jan. 30, at Gaynor's School of Cooking, South Side. $50 per person. 412-235-2703 or gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.
Kids' Tasting Class: Kids can use multiple senses to identify and sample different fruits and veggies. 11 a.m. Monday at Marty's Market, Strip District. $10. martysmarket.com.
Thin Man Sandwich Shop -- Signature Sandwiches: Learn to make gourmet sandwiches with the owners of the Strip District eatery. 6 p.m. Monday at Crate in Scott. $40. cratecook.com.
Exploring Local Cheddars: Meet East End Food Co-Op's cheese buyer and sample a variety of cheddars from local cheesemakers. 7 p.m. Wednesday at East End Food Co-Op, Point Breeze. Free, but reserve a spot: 412-242-3598.
Early American Hearth Cooking: Six hands-on sessions on foods and dining customs of colonial Americans. First class is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Old Stone House in Slippery Rock. $150 for the six sessions. 724-738-4964 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wine & Chocolate Tasting: Wines from Webb Winery and chocolate from Philadelphia Candies, both businesses based in Hermitage. 4 to 9 p.m. Feb. 6, 7 and 8 and 13, 14 and 15 at Webb Winery. $12 per person. Reservations: 724-856-2770 or email@example.com.
Fruit of the Vine Festival: Kosher wines for tasting and auction, plus kosher food and live and silent auctions of restaurant and resort gift cards and sports tickets. 4:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at Clear Story Studio, South Side. $75 per person; ages 21 and up only. Proceeds benefit the Agency for Jewish Learning (ajlpittsburgh.org).
Alton Brown: The TV chef visits Pittsburgh for a stage show of stand-up comedy, multimedia lecture and live music and food experimentation. 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Benedum, Downtown. Tickets (starting at $32.25): 412-456-6666.
Happy birthday to soup
Do I have any readers out there who are turning 80 this month? If so, you might be interested to know that you share a birthday with Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.