The Branch Bistro
Hail to the Chefs Series
by Melissa Adler
At The Branch Bistro, they specialize in second chances and practical skills: “They’ll gain practical skills that, if they’re talented enough, so they could run their own restaurant when they graduate,” says Brian Romano, Dean of Culinary Arts.
Betty Crocker doesn’t bake in this kitchen. Paul Newman doesn’t stock the salad bar. In fact, anyone selling pre-packaged soups, sauces or salad dressings should stay at the grocery store, because everything in this kitchen is made from scratch. This is the Branch Bistro & Catering, a place for culinary arts students to create recipes in a laboratory that has many willing guinea pigs.
This laboratory, where experimentation is encouraged, is part of the Victory Trade School. Students come from all over the country to train with top culinary arts instructors and learn a new skill that lifts them out of an old life of bad choices and bad circumstances. You could say that the students are starting from scratch, too.
Lunch rush at the Branch Bistro begins around 11 a.m. and doesn’t slow down until closing time at one. Located inside the Assemblies of God National Office in Springfield, Mo., the restaurant offers a menu that changes daily, but always features fresh baked bread, hand-cut meat and elegantly presented desserts. “We talked about doing a standardized menu, but there’s no fun in it, honestly,” says Brian Romano. As the Dean of Culinary Arts, he designs the curriculum for the culinary arts program, and teaches the six full-time instructors how to make every ingredient demonstrate a technique and every lesson to be hands-on.
The Bistro keeps the 800 or so people who work at 1445 N. Boonville Ave. well fed, along with employees of CoxNorth and other guests who like fresh food made to order. Within 5-7 minutes of placing an order, customers are enjoying Caribbean chicken salad on a made-from-scratch croissant, or comfort food with a twist, like tomato bacon bleu cheese soup. Even the potato chips, thin and crunchy, are fried fresh daily.
The students work every position in the restaurant and learn all aspects of food service. For some, it’s their first job. In the front of the house, they wait tables, run the cash register and interact with people. In the back of the house, they learn about food prices, they chop vegetables, roast turkey – they do it all. This experience prepares them for life after completing the one year certification. “They’ll gain practical skills that, so if they’re talented enough, they could run their own restaurant when they graduate,” says Romano. “They have that much knowledge.”
Job placement is not a problem for graduates. Word of mouth within the industry has created high demand for the students. “They usually have more than one choice of job,” says Becki Carr, who is the Catering Coordinator. “We’re very, very proud of them, especially some of them who have come a long way.” Word of mouth is also helping the catering side grow. Because the Branch Bistro & Catering is non-profit and operates on donations, happy customers are its best source of advertising.
No catering job is too big, says Carr, since they have the staff and students, and experience to pull off a large event, such as a wedding complete with cake and elaborate ice carvings. They also cater office parties, birthdays and company picnics. “I tell anyone who is new to us – if you’re pricing, we will not be the cheapest, but if that’s what it’s about, you can find someone cheaper,” says Carr. “We won’t be the most expensive. We are very economically priced, and you cannot beat the quality of food.”
Timing is everything in the catering business. In a restaurant, Romano explains, you can quickly adjust to anything. Catering is a whole different mindset where advanced planning is critical. Take the example of pork loin for a catering event. If it’s frozen, it needs to be pulled from the freezer days ahead. If it’s fresh pork, it must arrive two days before the event. Then there’s the marinade, which can’t be rushed. When the pork comes out of the oven, it must be sliced, but not too early or it might dry out. Then you have to think about transporting it somewhere else and the guests still aren’t going to eat it for an hour. And when they are ready to eat, it has to be perfect. “That is a skill a lot of chefs don’t learn,” says Romano. “Fortunately, I think we do catering very well.”
The catering menu is extensive, but they’re happy to fill special requests. “We love finding recipes, doing new things,” says Romano. That kind of creativity is supported among students. Ryan Hoolihan, who has been in the program since November of 2012, likes working the salad bar because there’s freedom to create recipes, like potato salad and carrot salad. “They’ll even order ingredients for you,” says Hoolihan. Although he’s been in the program only a short time, he likes the work. “It feels good when you make a really good dish and someone compliments you on it.”
“It feels good when you make a really good dish and someone compliments you on it.”
– Ryan Hoolihan
Branch Bistro student since November 2012
Hoolihan has high praise for the instructors who are never too busy to help. “I can tell they care.” Some bad decisions in his 20s landed Hoolihan in trouble. Now at the age of 32 he’s clear about his future. “As long as I keep working hard with integrity, good work ethic, I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding a job,” says Hoolihan. He sometimes thinks about returning to his hometown in Michigan after graduation, but hopes a door will open in Springfield. “I got a great church, great mentor, great friends in my life.”
The Victory Trade School plans to open up the culinary arts program to women, who currently cannot enroll because of housing. Students are required to live on campus and women who are in other Victory Mission programs live in a house across town. A major fundraising effort is underway to buy a house and bring women into the program.
The Branch Bistro changes the menu. The Victory Trade School changes lives.
Back at the Branch Bistro, the staff is creating a new weekly feature salad. Students are baking bread for local restaurants. People are enjoying made-from-scratch burgers. The Bistro changes the menu often. The Victory Trade School changes lives.
The Victory Trade School also runs the Cook’s Kettle Restaurant, 1715 N. Boonville Ave., where classrooms for the culinary arts program are located. The eatery is open from 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about the restaurants and catering, contact Becki Carr at 417.655.4080.
Melissa Adler is a contributing writer for GREENE Magazine. She recently accepted the “assignment” of producing Hail to the Chefs, a regular feature featuring professional chefs and accomplished amateurs with a passion for preparing good and healthy food. Melissa’s recollections after running in the 117th Boston Marathon are also featured on the website this issue. Please send suggested subjects to Editor at Ozarks Living.com.
Recipe – By Chef Brian M. Romano, CEC
Whole Grain Tabbouleh on Citrus Tossed Spinach
Yield: Serves 4
¼ cup Red Quinoa
1/3 cup Buckwheat groats
¼ cup Millet, cooked
¼ cup Amaranth, cooked
¼ cup Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ cup Flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup Mint leaves, chopped
1 English cucumber, diced
1 pint Cherry tomatoes, quartered
STT Kosher salt and
STT Freshly ground pepper
4 oz. Baby Spinach, washed
1 Oranges, segments
¼ cup Red onion, thin cut
1 Lemon, segments
1 Lime, segments
1 Grapefruit, segments
1/4 cup Olive oil
- Heat four cups of water to a simmer, add quinoa and cook for 4 minutes. Add minute millet and amaranth and cook for an additional 3 minutes.
- Add the buckwheat and cook until the grains are al’ dente. Approx 5-7 minutes; drain and allow to cool.
- In a medium size bowl mix all of the tabbouleh ingredients together and stir well.
- In a separate bowl, toss spinach with olive oil, onions and citrus, lightly toss.
- Divide the spinach into four servings, decoratively arrange the citrus and onions on the plate.
- Place the tabbouleh mixture onto the top. Serve immediately.
Chef’s note: This is a gluten and allergy free salad. It’s perfect for warm weather.