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Entree into fine-dining employment

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Trainee LaTonya Holmes serves Corey Allison, left, and Crystal Harris in the Park Lane dining room.

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The fish was flat-iron seared, the tomatoes were sun-dried, and the staff was a little green.

For customer Idelma Urolia, the luncheon cuisine at Toledo's newest fine-dining establishment couldn't have been more satisfying.

"There hasn't been an entree I didn't enjoy," said Ms. Urolia, who works with foster parents at Lucas County Children Services. She was on her fifth visit.

Cafe in the Park, operated by the nonprofit Toledo Restaurant Training Center, has served lunch on Wednesdays since opening in early October in the historic Park Lane Luxury Apartments on 23rd Street near downtown.

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Jennifer Vasquez, who hopes to own a restaurant someday, loads a tray.

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Next week, the cafe will add lunches on Thursdays from 11 to 2 p.m. The program was set up in July to provide job skills to underprivileged men and women while creating a pipeline of trained waiters, cooks, and managers for area restaurants.

Student Jennifer Vasquez, a 29-year-old mother of three, hopes the intense, eight-week course will launch a career in the hospitality industry, and lead eventually to restaurant ownership.

"I've learned a lot," said the cook trainee, citing the importance of "use of color to make the food presentation look nice."

In the kitchen, she conferred with trainer and professional Chef Chris Bates. "How's the soup?" he asked, lifting the lid on a steaming crock of black bean.

"Good, but it's a little thick, Chef," Ms. Vasquez replied.

"Let's add some warm water," he instructed.

Advising another student on proper arrangement of food on a plate, he said: "Vegetables at 10 o'clock, meat at 6 o'clock."

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Executive Chef Chris Bates finishes a plate in the kitchen as trainee Tonya Williams cooks.

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Speaking later to a reporter, Mr. Bates said, "I've been hiring people in this city for 12 years. I know what skills people are lacking. We try to give them a good foundation, to train them in prep and knife skills. They're learning about the timing that is necessary. "

For $10.95 customers get a four-course lunch, which yesterday was a choice of a pasta dish, whitefish, chicken, Kansas City pork, or Cajun salmon, along with salad, soup, dessert, and a beverage.

Students are either unemployed or underemployed and often are in food-stamp and medical-assistance programs. They are referred by the Lucas County Department of Job & Family Services, which has given the school $185,000 to provide the training under a contract that runs through June 30.

The agency has similar arrangements with organizations that provide training in forklift operation and dental-assisting, said Deb Ortiz-Flores, executive director of the county department.

The school is the brainchild of its director, Karen Everage.

While heading the area's Black Chamber of Commerce, she spoke with numerous members who owned restaurants and were having difficulty finding trained employees.

She was pleased that the school was able to use the kitchen and dining room of the former Park Lane Hotel, now an apartment complex, for its training restaurant.

"The dining room is so elegant and is set in history and nostalgia," she said. It features chandeliers, linen tablecloths, pale yellow wall covering, and white molding. Classes are held elsewhere in the building, which was built in 1925 and once hosted famous guests, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope, and Marilyn Monroe.

All but five of the school's 30 slots are filled. Next year, it will add new courses, including training for people under 18, Ms. Everage said.

The goal is to place students in jobs that pay at least $8 an hour.

A class of seven -the first-graduates today.

Since opening Oct. 6, the restaurant has served about 40 lunches daily. Officials are considering an evening dinner menu on Fridays and brunch on Sunday. Also under study is opening the program to tuition-paying students.

Contact Gary T. Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.

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