LYNN — If you want to spend $8.50 on lunch including prime rib, dessert and soup, the Lynn Vocational Technical Institute (LVTI) Commercial Street annex is your destination.
Half culinary school and half midday restaurant and coffee shop, the Tiger’s Den bears the name of LVTI’s mascot and culinary instructor Steve Lopez’s goal to prepare his students for the fast-paced, intensely-competitive world of commercial dining.
“We train them to work in the industry. The skills they are learning are relevant for the next 20 years,” Lopez said.
Culinary students such as juniors Jennifer Lopez (no relation) and Jalen Claudio rotate from one meal preparation station in the kitchen to the next and work in the dining room where they serve customers Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Thursday is prime rib day and Friday is baked haddock. Steve Lopez said students contribute their own menu ideas. Claudio prepared pupusas — small tortillas stuffed with different fillings — last Thursday and got experience cooking on the kitchen’s grill.
Claudio set his sights on enrolling in the culinary shop, as LVTI training programs are called, when he entered LVTI. He was to continue his culinary training after finishing high school.
“My family comes from a long line of cooks,” he said, adding pupusas are a family favorite.
Lopez has taught at LVTI for 17 years and has additional help teaching culinary students, thanks to substitute teacher Alyssa Howell. A 2005 LVTI graduate, Howell honed her career working in Newport, R.I., restaurants.
Her goal is to train Lopez’s students in preparing them for working in the food industry.
“My main focus is: Are they going to be employable? Can they show up and produce and do so safely? It is intense, stressful work but also fruitful,” she said.
She said LVTI students need to not only learn basic cooking skills but also absorb the “sense of urgency” always permeating a commercial kitchen. They also need to know how to interact professionally with the dining public.
Lopez gives his students high marks for their service training. The number of people eating in the Tiger’s Den ranges from 30 to 100 people sitting down to meals or buying a cup of coffee and a pastry.
“Diners love the kids. They bring Christmas gifts for them and watch them grow from shy sophomores to seniors who are running the place,” he said.
The culinary shop recently added allergen training and computer-based inventory and ordering programs to train students in industry-standard practices.
Lopez loves when culinary graduates like Howell and fellow 2005 LVTI graduate Anthony White come back. White brought his cooking skills to the Marine Corps and he is visiting Lopez and Howell next week.
“He cooked for 1,500 people including the secretary of defense,” Lopez said.