Onions and meat were over fire. Scott Holub was under pressure.
The 33-year-old student chef from Loudonville stir-fried beef in a black wok. He tolerated the smoke and clatter of a busy kitchen and helped fellow chefs prepare dinner plates at Schenectady County Community College.
“I need two beef and two chicken, like yesterday,” said Kevin Kea, 22, of Glenville, sous-chef — second in command — for the noisy culinary classroom.
Holub stayed on the sizzle, and worked quickly. “It’s always kind of a blur,” he said. “It’s interesting because it’s like an adrenaline rush. Everything’s always happening at once, you have to keep moving.”
On Wednesday, 21 chefs and servers worked the last supper hours of the semester at SCCC’s elegant Casola Dining Room. Students, with guidance from culinary professors David Brough and Robert Payne, have been working nights since fall. With books closing soon — and students finishing dining room management and classical cuisine classes — the room will be closed until late September.
On Wednesday, 59 people were on the guest list for the candlelight ambience of the Casola. Nine students in white shirts and black vests, slacks, aprons and ties worked the front of the house and checked coats, took orders and answered questions about the Southeast Asia menu. Holub, Kea and 10 other students in chef whites and checkered pants worked the back of the house.
Some diners come for the great price. Each dinner is $22, including tax. No tips are accepted. Guests can bring their own wine, although they must pay a $3 corkage fee to fill their glasses.
Payne said some students can be shy about leaving the back of the house and working the front of the house. “All of a sudden they’re like, ‘Chef, we really enjoy this,’” Payne said. “A lot of times, they end up switching from the back of the house to the front of the house. There’s much more interaction with the guests.”
For some guests, talking with students is one reason Casola nights are so much fun.
“We’re regulars,” said Judy Kapila, 63, of Troy, seated with her husband Ash and their friends and fellow Troy residents Pat and Martin Monahan. “We love Chef Payne; we love interacting with the kids. We like to see their progress during the semester. We sometimes have to offer little tips, little things like opening a bottle of wine and serving women first. And since we’re so friendly, the kids love it. They don’t take offense by it.”
Martin Monahan has enjoyed some of the stories the students have told — like one waiter who once worked as a plumber and now plans to open his own restaurant.
Other people like the food. “The menus are more varied than in many dining rooms, because not every dining room will have Vietnamese food,” said Grace Meuller of Scotia, who ordered Vietnamese spring rolls with her friend Gail Rheingold of Albany. “It changes from week to week, and it’s nice to see young people learn their trades.”
Brough, who is also dean of the college’s school of hotel, culinary arts and tourism, said students have to study before they make Casola dinner night team. The course is open to second-year students.
“We feel really good about how we do the first-year courses,” Brough said. “So they’re ready when they get here. When they come here, they have the basic skills. Here, we try to teach them about the cuisines.”
These students, Brough added, are already working in restaurants. They must log 600 hours on the job in a professional operation before graduation.
Young chefs are glad to have the experience. Meagan Collett, 19, of Watervliet worked the appetizer station on Wednesday, and was happy to be on the quick step. “ I work well under pressure,” she said. “I like to keep moving and grooving.”
“It’s very fast paced,” added Blanca Perez, 20, of Schenectady, as she placed Indonesian pork satays on a grill and brushed them with a butter-garlic-soy sauce mixture. “It’s good experience. A lot of kids don’t get to work with the food we get to work with.”
Alexis Arnold, 20, of Niskayuna, stayed busy at the front of the house. She likes meeting people, and expects to meet more during planned careers as a catering chef and winery owner.
“I love it, I have fun,” she said of her collegiate studies. “I come to school and have fun. Not a lot of people can say that.”
While no tips are accepted after meals, Ann Ten Eyck of Troy found a way to beat the rule. She entered the Casola with two colorfully wrapped plates full of brownies for her favorite chefs and servers.
“They’re good kids, and they’ve done a wonderful job,” she said.