By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — The Mineral Spring Cafe is open for business.
The student-run restaurant, part of the culinary arts program of the Mount Washington Valley Career and Technical Center at Kennett High School, had a soft opening Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Eagles are eager to feed their community.
Under the direction this year of Chef Mark Tapper — taking over for Kendra Veno, who is on a two-year leave of absence — and Sous-Chef Alison Bickord, the program has 48 students enrolled this fall.
According to Tapper, "Culinary students run all aspects of this full-service restaurant, both front and back of the house. Front of the house positions include host/hostess, waiter/waitress, and cashier. Back of the house positions include prep cook, line cook, expediter, sous chef and pastry chef.
The students learn about customer service, purchasing, cost control, menu planning, training, scheduling and management skills, he said. They also help write menus and manage catered functions.
"Mark and Alison are doing a great job with the students," said Virginia Schrader, interim career and technical center director.
"We want to get the word out to the public that we're now open, and eager for people to come and give the restaurant a try."
Schrader said Tapper brings a wealth of experience from the public sector to the classroom.
"Mark worked at the famous Commander's Palace in New Orleans for five years," she said. "I watched him make a roux (used to thicken sauces) the other day, and it was a really interesting lesson for me and the students."
Now in its eighth year, the cafe is no longer the best-kept dining secret in town. The community has found it, and a host of regular diners enjoy everything from soups to salad, wraps to hot entrees and dessert.
They also get the opportunity to see the pride of the 16 Culinary II and III students who do the cooking, serving and cleanup.
On Wednesday, the special of the day was Gumbo Ya Ya, and it was a hit with faculty members.
"Where else are you going to get a bowl of homemade soup this size for $5?" Tapper asked as he filled a takeout order. "This will all be gone by the end of day, I guarantee it."
For the past four years, the cafe has offered buffets, and will do so each Thursday after the Christmas holiday recess.
Last year, students had an Italian, German, Halloween-themed, Veterans, American favorites and a Mexican buffet.
"I imagine we'll do something very similar," Tapper said.
Senior Alijah Smith, a Culinary III student who created the Mexican buffet from scratch last year, is looking forward to the return of the buffets.
"I like the kitchen best," he said. "I like making easy food, the quicker the better. The harder menus take more time because you need to be more precise. If it take a little longer to get out, I'll come out and apologize to the customer, but the most important thing to me is to get it right."
After the holiday recess, the culinary students will also offer "Fridays to go meals" to take home for the weekends.
They also plan to offer holiday desserts for purchase.
"We'll be putting out order forms for Christmas cookies," Tapper said. "You'll be able to order them by the tin. This year, we're also going to be doing yule logs: chocolate sponge filled with Swiss butter cream and topped with chocolate ganache."
The students will also be part of the ProStart program for a third year.
ProStart is a nationwide high school program that unites the classroom and industry to develop the best and brightest talent into tomorrow's restaurant and food service leaders," its website said.
With support from industry members, educators, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and state restaurant association partners, ProStart reaches more than 118,000 students in 1,700 high schools across the U.S., Schrader said.
Chance Bousquet, a junior, and Aeneas Robinson, a senior, represented KHS at the ProStart 2016 State Competition at the University of New Hampshire last March. The duo finished second, and each received $14,250 in possible culinary scholarships — $12,500 to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.; $750 to Johnson & Wales College in Rhode Island; and $1,500 to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
"We're definitely looking forward to competing again," said Chance, who said he was offered a post as a line cook at Deacon Street in North Conway.
"I love it there," he said. "I worked four days a week and have learned so much. I'm only a junior, but I'm planning on doing early graduation. I plan to pursue culinary and have already been accepted at Johnson & Wales and am waiting to hear back from four other schools."
Chance said it has been a smooth transition from Veno to Tapper. "They're both really good, but are totally different, if that makes sense," he said.
Tapper said visitors to Mineral Spring will find plenty of fresh food. "Take our barbecue poke panini. We roast the pork shoulder and then hand-pull the pork off. All our soups are from scratch, and salad dressing options are all freshly made."
Mineral Spring Cafe also has an extensive catering clientele across Mount Washington Valley.
Mineral Spring Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays.
While the buffet is priced at $10, the salad bar is available at 25 cents an ounce. On non-buffet days, menu items include a turkey and avocado BLT for $7.50, homemade hummus wrap for $6.50 and barbecue pork panini for $7.50. There are also entrees such chicken pot pie for $10.95; homemade macaroni and cheese for $8.95; and Swedish meatballs for $10.95. Desserts include apple and chocolate cream pie at $4 a slice.