By Michele J. Kuhn
RED BANK – The interior of 45 Broad St. doesn’t look anything like a typical classroom but – make no mistake about it – it’s a place where recently a whole lot of life lessons were on the menu, served up to eager students.
The lessons came courtesy of Claudette Herring and Lauren Phillips, chefs/owners of Via 45 restaurant, who offered students from Carl Sandberg Middle School in Old Bridge not only a look into the busy world of running a restaurant but also imparted advice and encouragement. They told students to follow their passion, take chances, put their best foot forward, accept change, learn to compromise and make a mark on the world.
The 31 students were members of a gifted class taught by Paula Eisen who, in an effort to help her students become “well-rounded individuals who excel when they speak to others,” designed the unit to explore other cultures and disciplines. The students previously worked with a businessman to learn about the world of finance and banking and then made a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and spent time learning about art and its various genres.
The final segment was to learn about the culinary world. It’s a unit that Herring has helped Eisen teach for 10 years and Phillips for six. They go to the school once a week for six weeks to talk about what it takes to run a restaurant, about teamwork and compromise, taking chances and following what you love in life. Students then form teams to design a restaurant in the style of a culture they have studied.
The culmination of the restaurant unit occurs when students invite their families to a meal at Via 45. The students work together to run the front of the house, bussing tables and assuming the roles of waitstaff and greeter.
While dishes of eggplant parmigiana, chicken piccata and shrimp vodka were served, the best part of the evening for just about everyone was the pride that bubbled to the surface as students rush through the dining room carrying plates of food, glasses of soda and caring for their guests. They gained a new respect for those who work in restaurants and got a glimpse into what it’s like to be taking an order rather than giving it.
“You need a lot of teamwork to do this,” said student Mariah Diaz, 14, as she stood in a line with other servers near the kitchen, waiting to carry brightly colored salads to a table. “If everyone doesn’t cooperate, it just doesn’t work.
“It’s stressful,” she added. “It’s a first-time experience and it’s hard to serve people you don’t know.”
Student Emily Carrington, 14, saw the experience as an important lesson in learning about managing and working with others. “I’m learning people skills,” she said. “I’m learning about how difficult this is and that it takes a whole lot of dedication to be successful in business.”
Emily, who served as a waitstaff member, said Phillips and Herring were “nice and passionate about what they do. They understand that we are new to this but they didn’t baby us … (Running a restaurant) is very hard but it’s also fun. It’s like a family, you have to support each other.”
Emily’s parents, Robert and Linda Carrington, who both worked in restaurants earlier in their lives, were thrilled to see their daughter and her classmates “doing the same things we did when we started, like carrying a tray and talking to people,” Robert Carrington said. “I hope they also get that it can be fun. We used to love waiting.”
Nenita Diaz, Mariah’s mother, saw the class as “a good foundation” for her daughter. “It’s exciting for her. It’s a great experience … I didn’t realize they were exposed to all of this business but I think it’s great.”
Eisen said that Herring and Phillips are natural teachers. “The interesting thing is the students gravitate toward them,” she said. “They impart what they know and show how they work together.” They help build the students’ sense of “independence, growth and self-esteem.”
When she initially approached the lesson, Herring said her aim was to “help the children create from beginning to end a vision of a restaurant.”
For Herring, the exercise over the past 10 years has evolved and has been a way to see her own growth in her chosen field. “As you start to give others information, you get to see how much you have learned and how much more you can learn. That goes hand-in-hand,” she said.
“It’s not just about the restaurant; it’s also about themselves,” Phillips said.
“You got to have some part of your life that you’re passionate about,” Herring said. “It doesn’t mean that your work is not hard or you won’t come up against obstacles. It’s that deep sense that you are passionate about what you do – and I don’t care what you do, you have to have passion.”
“You have to stay true to yourself,” Phillips said.
“Life is coming to the table … It’s about who you are, what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you’re about to be,” Herring said.
Though that’s a lot to put on a plate, the chef/owners of Via 45 are happy to serve up those lessons. From all accounts, the students are happy to learn them from true professionals.