It had been open several months before I even knew it existed, but suddenly, I was hearing about Elevation, the new student-run restaurant at the Cascade Culinary Institute, several times a week.
In addition to regular culinary courses, the curriculum at the culinary institute includes hands-on front- and back-of-the- house training for students at Elevation. It’s a chance for students to experience firsthand what it’s like to work every position within a full-service restaurant. Profits from the restaurant cover the food and administration costs, but the gratuities from Elevation—which seats more than 75 people—go entirely into a scholarship fund for students.
When I arrived, the tastefully appointed dining room felt spacious with vaulted ceilings and tall windows looking out onto the Ponderosa pines. Windows at the back of the room face the kitchen and allow customers to catch a peek at the students working hard to prepare the meals. With a menu that includes three courses for a fixed price of just $21, Elevation offers a great value for diners in addition to giving students the hands-on experience they need.
“We price it that way because we want to bring the public in to take part in the educational experience of the students,” said instructor and Executive Chef Thor Erickson. “We want the feedback. In fact, we like feedback so much that we actually provide iPads with surveys on them for diners to use after they finish their meal. That way we can instantly know what’s happening, and then the next day the instructor can say, specifically, these steaks were overcooked. And knowing which student was working the grill allows us to approach them and to work on their competency in that area.”
Erickson is a long-time Central Oregon chef now enjoying his first appointment as an educator. One point of pride for him in the curriculum is the stress on sustainability. This is a core value of Cascade Culinary Institute, and one that is apparent in the menu at Elevation. Virtually every ingredient on the menu is locally sourced, from the meat, cheese and produce, all the way to the beverage menu, which includes a nice variety of Oregon wines, Sierra Nevada Elevation Ale and Portland-produced sodas.
On my first visit, I dined with friends, which allowed me to sample each of the four appetizer choices, and all but the vegetarian entrée. I have to say, we were impressed with the quality of the food, and maybe even a bit surprised, knowing students had prepared and presented every bite.
The stand-out appetizers were the Lacinado kale and the handcrafted charcuterie. The finely shredded kale was tenderized by a sour cherry vinaigrette and seeded with toasted Oregon hazelnuts and just the right amount of local Cada Dia Feta.
The charcuterie plate included pork and chicken sausage, and a rosette of prosciutto, with a salami center, all created by students in the butchering and charcuterie class, added to the curriculum this year.
In addition to teaching USDA butchering standards, Erickson also gives students practice in European seam butchering, which follows a stricter set of dissection principles intended to maintain the integrity of whole muscle groups with the connective tissue intact, so as not to expose the meat to bacteria before preservation.
The pork loin and the sturgeon ended up in a tie for second place in the entrée category. But the winner was the Draper Valley chicken.
The pan-roasted breast was the most texturally pleasing thing on the menu in my mind. So much so that I ordered it on my second visit, too. It burst with juices when I sliced into it, just before I discovered the hidden bottom layer of apple-fennel farce—a chicken sausage of sorts stuffed under the skin, which bonded with the breast when cooked.
On my second visit, I ordered the soup du jour as my first course. The presentation of the prosciutto consommé was a fresh surprise. Colorful edible flowers floated on the clarified broth, which were as delightful to the eye as the soup was to my palate.
Unfortunately for me, the service on both visits did not match the perfect execution of the menu. The manager, though present and engaged, failed to follow through during several steps of service with which he helped. Glasses remained empty even after more water was offered, and the drinks we ordered were late to arrive or never brought at all. Then, at the end of both visits, we were accidentally over-charged.
All of these things were forgivable of course; but we were surprised at how unfamiliar servers were with the ingredients and seemed to lack the information needed to answer basic questions about the menu.
On the other hand, I was impressed during both visits by the hostesses and the cooks—several of whom came out to engage with guests and enthusiastically described the dishes before me.
All in all, service was hit or miss, but the food itself hit the bulls-eye, exceeding my expectations for a gourmet three-course meal prepared by students and priced at only $21.
At the Cascade Culinary Institute
2555 NW Campus Village Way
Open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with seatings from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m.