BRATTLEBORO—There’s a new lunch spot in town — but it’s open only on Thursdays at noon, there’s only one meal on the menu at a pay-what-you-can cost, and reservations are a must.
This new dining option is a pop-up restaurant that debuted on Aug. 1 at the River Garden, with food prepared by students in the Strolling of the Heifers Farm-to-Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program.
The program, in its fifth year, offers a mix of classroom time and hands-on training to groom participants for permanent food-preparation positions at restaurants and institutional kitchens and careers in the culinary field. It runs from early July to mid-September.
According to Orly Munzing, founder of Strolling of the Heifers, the program has an 83-percent graduation rate, and a 100-percent placement rate for those who do graduate.
About 90 percent of graduates from previous classes are still employed in the culinary field.
“The success rate has been good,” said Munzing. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely a labor of love for us.”
The Stroll has provided kitchen and classroom space at the River Garden for the program, which teaches basic food-service skills in a team environment.
This year, however, the Stroll also provided an opportunity for the apprentices to test what they’ve learned through the pop-up restaurant.
“It’s nice to be around food, but it’s even better to have the pressure of taking care of customers,” said Tristan Toleno, the program’s curriculum director. “So we’re using the kitchen and the River Garden to mimic a service environment. This is the first time we’ve tried it, and I think it’s a great idea.”
The nine apprentices in this year’s group spent the morning before the diners arrived for the first pop-up session busily moving about the River Garden’s kitchen. They were making mini quiches, tossed salad, and fresh-squeezed lemonade, with homemade chocolate-chip cookies for dessert.
Toleno, a member of the state House of Representatives who is also a partner in Entera Artisanal Catering, guided the students through the preparation of the quiches and salad.
However, it was the students who were helping one another and doing all the work as they prepared the food, made up the plates, and brought them out for the two dozen diners at the River Garden to enjoy.
To qualify for the Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship, applicants need to be residents of Cheshire or Windham counties, have a history of unemployment or under-employment, and have a serious interest in a culinary career.
This year, the program has partnered with the Brattleboro Retreat and Groundworks Collaborative to provide therapeutic support for participants.