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Hotel students keep their cool in heat of Statler's celebrity-chef kitchen

Guest chef Larry Finn gives pre-banquet pep talk to students

Guest chef Larry Finn gives a pre-banquet pep talk. See larger image

From "Iron Chef" to "Barefoot Contessa," cooking shows have become all the rage among sophisticated "foodies" – folks who like to cook and entertain.

For students training in the hospitality industry, working alongside a high-profile chef from a famous upscale restaurant like, say, New York City's The Four Seasons, is more than entertainment: It's an invaluable education.

And that's exactly what Cornell's School of Hotel Administration has been offering to its students, mostly seniors, through its annual Guest Chefs series. For the past two decades, this course has been in a class by itself, bringing the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse to the Statler.

"Each year in the spring, we have three professionals from the industry teach alongside our students in a real dining situation," says Giuseppe Pezzotti, a lead instructor of the Specialty Food and Beverage Operations course. "The students handle everything from marketing and promoting a special dinner, to planning the menu and buying all the food and serving it."

The course provides students the hands-on experience of throwing a top-notch banquet that is polished and presented under the scrutiny of a veteran chef.

Overhead view of banquet preparation

Top view of banquet preparation. See larger image

On March 11 and 12, Larry Finn, chef d'cuisine at The Four Seasons, brought his equipoise to a dinner event held in the Statler's Park Atrium. For one special night the lobby was transformed into a smartly outfitted banquet area, complete with special lighting effects.

For each Guest Chefs event, students work on one of three teams: marketing, production and service. Budgets are set, and hitting the numbers is vital: Marketers must attract as many dinner guests as possible (at $125 a plate, that can be a challenge); kitchen staff must order, prep and cook the food; and service staff must present a four-star meal with a full complement of wines they choose themselves.

It's a high-pressure course – but no one gets fired. That's another show – it's also one of the benefits of being a student.

Throughout his two-day visit, Finn was the antithesis of the hot-headed chef.

Larry Finn puts last-minute garnish on an entrŽe

Finn garnishes an entrée. See larger image

"I work with the students the way I would if we were training any new member of our kitchen in New York," says Finn, casually prepping this and tasting that. "They've got a good set-up here, and my job is to just help them do what they already know how to do." And to step in when trouble arises – or, in the case of a flan that flopped, remind them: Hey, it happens. The show must go on.

Finn's unpretentious style set the tone for students and staff from the back of the house (kitchen) to the front (dining room and serving areas). While high-energy music thrummed and students and TA chefs-in-training pounded pork loins into submission or prepped appetizers, there was an undercurrent of ease in the kitchen.

The usual hugger-mugger was evident, but that comes with the territory. Hotel School instructor-chefs Bob White and Tony Vesco also kept a steady watch on the galley. By Saturday, reservations peaked at more than 80 guests – a good showing for the course. Back at The Four Seasons, Finn says, a Saturday night crowd might max out at 400-plus. Mind you, each of those meals must be prepared to order. Maybe that's why he hardly broke a sweat even over a steamy cauldron of parboiling white asparagus. Or maybe he's just a cool cucumber. It helped to some extent that main courses were largely prepped in advance; crunch time came the minute guests were seated.

"Our dinner was really about bringing The Four Seasons to Ithaca," says Karli Miller-Hornick '11, marketing manager. "... we were successful in doing that with our design, service and the exceptional food that Chef Finn helped us to prepare."

Course instructor Giuseppe Pezzotti

Course instructor Giuseppe Pezzotti shows off a napkin and banquet menu. See larger image

As serious a business as it was, there were lighthearted moments in the dining room. A surprise intermezzo course of pink cotton candy was served up by a line of 30 wait staff.

Who ever said haute cuisine couldn't be fun? Look at the TV ratings.

Joint program with CIA

Since 2006, Cornell has offered a cooperative degree program with Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the most prestigious cooking school in the United States, for students who want both an education in hospitality management (a Bachelor of Science degree) and in the culinary arts (an Associate degree in Occupational Studies). The five-year program has so far involved 70 students and has conferred dual degrees upon 35, including Harris Mayer-Selinger, SHA '06, CIA '07, noted head chef at Bar Paya, a Peruvian restaurant in the East Village.

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