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There's a delicious curriculum at Alvirne High School's restaurant

Union Leader Correspondent

February 13. 2013 7:43PM
Students Alex Munson, left, and Jasson Mendoza whipped up a batch of fresh beef empanadas in the kitchen at Checker's Restaurant Wednesday afternoon. (APRIL GUILMET PHOTO)

HUDSON -- It just might be Hudson's best-kept secret.

For more than 20 years, a small but devoted group of local diners have made regular stops at Alvirne High School, though most of them don't have any children enrolled there.

Checkers, a working restaurant inside the school's lower level that is staffed entirely by culinary arts students, is open to the public during lunchtime hours every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when school is in session.

From the industrial-sized kitchen to the bakery case filled with tantalizing treats to the cozy dining room outfitted with red Valentine's Day hearts, a trip to Checkers is truly an experience for students and patrons alike.

During lunchtime on Tuesday, 18 culinary arts students, most of them juniors and seniors, were hard at work both in the kitchen and in the front of the house.

Wearing a traditional chef hat, senior Ashley St. Onge prepared a tray of dark chocolate whoopie pies, a customer favorite.

St. Onge, who plans to enroll in the culinary arts program at Manchester Community College after she graduates this spring, said her love of all things sweet inspired her to look toward the future.

"I just love baking," said St. Onge, who planned to whip up a batch of homemade Valentine chocolates after her school day ended.

Seniors Mike DiSpensa and Alex Munson were also hard at work, painstakingly arranging a tray brimming with frothy meringue clouds, each garnished with kiwis, strawberries and mandarin orange slices.

DiSpensa said his sights are set on the renowned culinary program at Johnson & Wales next year, while Munson hopes to enroll in a culinary arts program after a stint in the Air Force. The two friends' preferences differ when it comes to what's cooking in the kitchen.

DiSpensa "just loves to sauté" while Munson's taste buds are drawn to such comfort foods as potpies and homemade macaroni and cheese.

Though they regularly attend Campbell High School in nearby Litchfield, students Jaimie Palma and Cassie Pate come to Hudson most days to participate in the culinary arts program.

"What can I say, cooking runs in my family," said Pate, a junior who dreams of becoming a pastry chef.

Culinary Arts instructor Timothy Buxton said the restaurant's operations have changed little as it approaches its 21st year in business - which is just fine with the eatery's loyal patrons. Lunch costs just $5 and is served with a side of vegetables.

Hudson residents Bert and Paul Sullivan said they frequent Checkers pretty regularly, and they've come to know longtime staff member Shirley Nadeau quite well over the years.

"These kids aren't bad cooks, not bad at all," Paul Sullivan said between bites of the day's special - a heaping plate filled with savory Chilean beef soup served over egg noodles and brimming with onions, carrots, peas, squash and corn.

His wife agreed

"These kids are absolutely phenomenal," Bert Sullivan said. "And the desserts here - well, they're pretty deadly."

Though the pair usually comes to Checkers on Tuesdays, when senior citizens are given extra-special treatment and baked haddock is the most popular menu item, the Sullivans said Wednesday's warmer weather led them out to lunch a day later than usual.

One of the most unique features of the program, Buxton said, is that each student gets a chance to shine. Each week a different student is tasked with writing that week's menu, while others take turns as bakers, sous chefs, servers and sandwich makers.

All proceeds from the restaurant, including the tips given to servers, are pooled into a scholarship fund for culinary arts graduates.

"It's quite a challenge for some of them," Buxton said. "But this is the chance for all of them to learn the basics. When they go off to the Culinary Institute of America or to Johnson and Wales, or to a job in the food industry, they're not going to have to ask anyone what 'poach' or 'flambé' means."

Principal Steven Beals agreed, noting the restaurant workers gain other valuable life skills in the process.

"They're constantly interacting with local seniors, with staff members and with each other," Beals said. "We'd love it if more folks from out in the community would come by and have lunch with us. Frankly, you can't beat the price."

Checkers, located at Alvirne High School, 200 Derry Road in Hudson, is open every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when school is in session from 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.

For more information, call Checkers at 886-1259.

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