Restaurant Talk: At College Restaurants, Students Run the Show

Learning to open a $300 bottle of wine is coursework for the hospitality students behind the restaurants at MSU, Penn State and Walnut Hill
Restaurant Talk: At College Restaurants, Students Run the Show
A Penn State student somm pours at the Nittany Lion Inn (left); Walnut Hill College chefs prep sushi. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania State / Walnut Hill College)
Apr 19, 2019

Class is in session—until midnight. That might sound like drudgery, but it's all part of the lesson plan for hospitality students eager to gain experience in real restaurant settings—the elite somms and ace chefs of the next generation.

At many universities, the future tastemakers enrolled in hospitality and culinary programs don't even need to leave campus to get this experience. Situated among lecture rooms, dorms and dining halls are a handful of Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners, where the impressive wine service is largely student-run. These restaurants serve as an additional classroom for students, and the coursework ranges from hosting, wine service, inventory management and bartending to overseeing a floor or kitchen team of their peers; students receive internship or course credit.

Three of the best such restaurants are Michigan State University's the State Room, in East Lansing, Mich., the Dining Room at the Nittany Lion Inn at Pennsylvania State in State College, Pa., and Bistro Perrier at Walnut Hill College (formerly known as the Restaurant School) in Philadelphia. Editorial assistant Brianne Garrett spoke to the State Room operations manager Marianne Bacon, Walnut Hill wine director and instructor Philippe McCartney and Dining Room at the Nittany Lion Inn operations manager and wine director Sean Caviston about treating students like regular employees, how to get over the nerves of opening your first $300 bottle of wine tableside, and the satisfaction of watching young alums go on to make it big in the restaurant world.

Courtesy of Walnut Hill College
Walnut Hill has a number of different types of restaurants that function as hospitality classrooms; Bistro Perrier, Italian Trattoria, American Heartland and the Pastry Shop are a few.

Wine Spectator: How do you go about "hiring" students and determining which roles they will carry out?

Philippe McCartney (Walnut Hill): In the restaurant itself, students take different positions—servers, occasionally sommeliers; we have students act as bartenders and hosts and hostesses, so they fill all of the positions. It's the student leaders who are designated by the faculty as being superior, having a good grade point average and things like that, [who are] allowed to work more in the supervisor role.

Sean Caviston (Penn State): I have [students] for an entire semester and try to get them up to speed on the whole world of wine. It's pretty fast and they're usually with us anywhere between 20 to 22 hours a week, three shifts a week. In regards to the supervisor positions, I'm taking someone that I'm developing to be a future leader directly in the restaurant industry.

Marianne Bacon (MSU): Student team members apply online for entry-level positions in the State Room through MSU’s standard application and interview process—same as any regular employee. We feel applying and interviewing for jobs is valuable experience that will benefit the student as they begin to apply for real-world jobs.

[After basic training,] they shadow a full-time manager for a period of three to four weeks, learning open and closing duties, report processing, beverage inventory and team leading. Once fully trained, the student supervisor acts as the manager on duty to make sure we meet our standard of excellence with every guest.

WS: How do you train students on wine service, specifically?

SC (Penn State): [The wine-training process] begins really fundamentally. The very first thing is the etiquette of properly opening a bottle of wine, tableside. We spend the first couple of weeks doing that, because some people don't really know how to serve—I mean, they're young, they're 21, and probably haven't had a lot of exposure to wine drinking. From there, we always begin with where wine grows, what grapes are. I'm more about demystifying wine and making it approachable rather than making it about having all this tremendous knowledge. And then we work in the deductive tasting.

One of the simplest deductive tastings I can do with [students] is taking a Chablis, an American Chardonnay from Napa Valley and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. One is intense and zesty and aromatic, the New Zealand; Chablis might be a little stony; and then the American Chardonnay is oaky and aromatic and round and voluptuous, right? That's the most fun day, when they have that "aha" moment. That's when they're like, "Wow, not all [wines] are the same."

MB (MSU): Servers are trained in proper wine presentation, and practice opening bottles and serving teammates at pre-shift meetings. Many find it daunting at first, but through practice our servers grow confidence. The State Room carries over 700 offerings, so we do not make our servers memorize our list. We place emphasis on participation by asking questions and offering verbal descriptions so that our students may feel confident when speaking with guests about wine. They can mispronounce "Châteauneuf-du-Pape" at pre-shift and not be embarrassed because they know we will coach them to get it right before meeting with guests.

PM (Walnut Hill): The sommelier [position] is really more accessible for the more advanced students. They're involved with selling and promoting wine and serving wine and things like that. They also help train the younger students, the newer students, on basic wine skills. Certainly wine opening is probably the most important thing that they need to learn, otherwise they’re not very comfortable in the restaurant.

We do have the students [help] create the wine list. We give them a wine, they do research and they write a blurb about it, so that they [can] explain it. And we put all this on our iPads. If a guest hits one of the iPad links, it goes to the student's description. If they hit another link, it goes to the winemaker's webpage.

Courtesy of Michigan State University
At MSU's the State Room, students start as "entry-level" staff, but the best can become floor managers.

WS: What is the guest reception to having students work in the restaurant?

SC (Penn State): The guests are so excited. So much of our clientele are either local and are university professors or work at the university, so they're excited to see the students applying directly an education that they're giving them already. The alumni love coming back, for football weekends and all that, and they love talking to the students, because they had a great experience here and they're like, "How's it going for you?"

MB (MSU): Our guests are impressed with the professional training of our students … Guests are always patient with new students as they learn to work through the nerves of selling and opening their first $300 bottle of wine.

PM (Walnut Hill): We are lucky—the guests are very understanding. Some of them, if they see that a student is struggling, they even offer to help. I try not to—I want the students to go through the whole process—but it's cute. They will point out mistakes and errors and things like that, but they're very gentle, because they want to encourage the students.

WS: What's the best part about having students on staff?

MB (MSU): I love working with students. They keep us energized and challenged. This is the best part of my job, because the students want to learn. They are full of fresh ideas and are constantly keeping us on our toes. They help us find new ways to tackle problems and keep us sharp.

PM (Walnut Hill): Many of our students graduate and become sommeliers within the city [of Philadelphia]. Bobby Domenick is the sommelier at Vetri Cucina, one of the better restaurants on the East Coast. It's nice to see these guys progress outside of our coursework.

SC (Penn State): The best part is seeing some of these students that were supervisors walk out the door and get a really high position at a really reputable restaurant. The best part is helping young people take that classroom education and directly walk across the street and say, "Ah, it reads different in the book, but now I get it."

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