There are two things that the Casola Dining Room has in common with the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. First, you have to call exactly two weeks in advance of your desired dining date and time to have any hope of a reservation. And second, if you do score a table, you are going to have an excellent meal.
Casola Dining Room is the showcase of Schenectady County Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Students who have completed three foundation courses work together on a menu that is American Regional in the fall, International in the spring. (It changes every week, but those are the overarching themes.)
There are two seatings at lunch and two at dinner and you will get attentive service in a white-tablecloth setting as you enjoy a carefully prepared appetizer, entrée and dessert for the grand sum of $16 (plus a scholarship surcharge at dinner). No tax, no tipping (though you can, and should, leave something extra which goes to the program) and you can bring alcoholic beverages for a modest corkage fee.
SCCC is a treasure in Upstate New York that has spawned countless chefs and front-of-house folks who are broadly distributed throughout a region filled with eateries. Because of the known quality and work ethic of its graduates, some of the best establishments make a practice of focusing their hiring on SCCC and those grads, in turn, hire their fellow students. Between 550 and 650 students are in attendance at any given time, pursuing a two-year associate’s degree path that can lead them to hospitality or casino management as well as culinary arts. If you attend full time, the entire two years will cost less than $7000. That’s a ridiculous bargain.
My server mentioned she was a first year student which caused me to ask Instructor Jay Larkin (a hotel management specialist whose classes are always full) about prerequisites for front-of-house staff. He had a great response which I’ll share in full:
For the service class there are no prerequisites and this is both a challenge and a blessing. The challenges come in the form of nervousness on the part of the student serving the guest for the first time as it truly can be the first time they have experienced fine dining service as a server or even as a guest. The blessing comes by way of no preformed habits to modify in service techniques. Many “seasoned” professionals have come through the program only to find their skills are not as well honed as once thought. We instruct at a high level of service to make any service thereafter easier to understand.
I think that gives you a good idea of why this program is so special and so successful. If you’re planning a visit to Upstate New York, consider putting Casola Dining Room on your itinerary. Be sure to check schedule because they only serve during school semesters. And don’t fail to call exactly 2 weeks in advance.
For more on the Casola Dining Room and access to their current menu, check here. [LINKS AND INSTRUCTIONS HAVE BEEN UPDATED.] For reservations, you can either try this OpenTable link at exactly 8 am 2 weeks before your desired dining date, or call exactly two hours later. According to the website, “Any remaining tables will be made available at 10:00 a.m. by calling and leaving a message on our reservation line at 518-381-1391 on a first-come, first-serve basis. Leaving a message does NOT guarantee you a reservation. You will receive a return call confirming or declining your request.”
And if you know someone who is ready to consider a career in cooking or hospitality, send them to the SCCC Culinary home page. (Remind them if you learn to cook for a living, you’ll likely always be able to find a job, and you’ll likely never go hungry.)
P.S. There are students of all ages at CCC including lots of mid-life career changers. Jay and Dean of Students David Brough and Supervising Instructor Rocco Verrigni told me about one student who completed the curriculum while still in high school, and another who got her certification at age 72 and is now pastry chef at one of Albany’s most prestigious restaurants. So no excuses. Come on down!