HRIM students at work in the kitchen at Vita Nova.

Tasty lessons

University's HRIM students learn by doing at Vita Nova restaurant

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9:54 a.m., Oct. 10, 2012--The Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management (HRIM) at the University of Delaware offers students the opportunity to experience restaurant service first hand at Vita Nova, UD’s faculty- and student-operated restaurant located on the second floor of the Trabant University Center on UD’s Newark campus.

Vita Nova, which is consistently ranked as one of the top hospitality programs in the country and has won “Best of Delaware” awards from Delaware Today for its service, aims to actively engage students in a business setting while simultaneously operating as an applied learning laboratory to educate tomorrow’s hospitality professionals.

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The premier classroom is just part of a complex educational experience students receive through HRIM, with the Courtyard by Marriott on Laird Campus offering experience-driven learning opportunities as well.

“The Vita Nova restaurant provides our HRIM students an unparalleled environment in which to learn how to manage the production and service aspects of a restaurant,” said Francis Kwansa, interim chair of HRIM.

Students working at Vita Nova rotate through 12 different positions in the front and back of the restaurant. 

Sophomores and juniors take courses during the lunch shifts serving Mediterranean cuisine to a variety of guests. Functioning at a higher pace and mastering complicated skills, seniors work during the dinner shifts Wednesday thru Friday offering an irresistible Italian Nuevo menu.

Hosted by instructors Joe DiGregorio, executive chef, Debbie Ellingsworth, sous chef, and Bernd Mayer, dining room manager, students attend a pre-meal discussion to learn different culinary techniques, like flouting mushrooms, and mastering daily rotations.

“Students learn and perform at the same time,” said Venka Pyle, director of restaurant operations. “After one week of orientation students operate under an intense schedule.”

Despite the intense schedule, students often put in extra time.

“All students are required to put in the minimum of 20 hours a week, but most of them come in and practice on their days off,” said Morgan Lightcap, a senior Vita Nova scholar and back-of-house (BOH) student kitchen manager.

Vita Nova scholars are chosen by their professors for demonstrating hard work and dedication, among other unique skill sets. The position involves helping current HRIM students with setting up for service and assuring the shift runs smoothly.

Sharon Abrams, also a senior Vita Nova scholar, commented on the uniqueness of the program.

“Not everything can be taught or learned in a textbook which is what makes this program so rewarding,” said Abrams. “Students still get graded, but the objective is to encounter different challenges focusing on the restaurant as a whole.”

“With the capable support and presence of the professional lab instructors, students are able to interact with real paying customers who provide instant feedback on their performance,” added Kwansa. “In this laboratory setting students make mistakes, learn from them and later perfect their craft.”

DiGregorio said he encourages students to always exercise safety by demonstrating knife cuts and sautéing techniques, as well as showing how to prepare proper portion size. Instructors also promote cleanliness by reinstating the importance of hand-washing and discussing topics like food borne illnesses.

“Students put their applied skills and knowledge to practice during every shift,” said DiGregorio. “It is important to know the technical skills in the BOH as well as the soft skills needed to operate the front of the house.”

Abrams and Lightcap spoke highly of the program, and commented on their post-graduation plans.

“I am New York bound after graduation and hope to continue working in hospitality or event planning, but I would love somewhere in between,” said Abrams. 

Lightcap is in his last semester at UD before continuing on to what he hopes is the Culinary Institute of America. 

“I love this program,” said Lightcap. “You will not find too many programs that are student-run, fine dining and upscale. I want something beautiful and this is an experience I would not find anywhere else.”

Article by Rachel Howard

Photos by Evan Krape

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