Virgil Evetts and Diana Clement discover the public can benefit from student chefs learning on the job, with great food at bargain prices.

Despite the god-like image some chefs garner, none drop fully formed from the sky. Each and every one must cut their culinary teeth somewhere - be it through a kitchen cadetship, or in specialist training institutes.

Auckland sports six such training schools for chefs. Most let students test their skills on family, friends and the public. The schools serve up a mixture of breakfast, lunch and dinner and are a great place for a cheap lunch and a culinary treat. We visited four training restaurants for a taste of what to expect from New Zealand's next top chefs.

Four Seasons at the Hospitality and Tourism School,
Auckland University of Technology

AUT's hospitality students run two restaurants: Piko Brasserie and Four Seasons which if you didn't know otherwise could pass themselves off as a mid to high-end hotel establishments.

This was our first lunch and, as "training restaurant novices", we didn't know what to expect. AUT was a great place to start. It's a slick operation and the food proved to be competent, contemporary and, at $29 a head, very good value.

On the day we dined, Four Seasons offered four choices per course, designed around the students' curriculum. We chose the pan-fried prawns with green beans, hazelnuts and lemon mayonnaise, and rare seared tuna with wasabi avocado, salmon roe and pickled daikon for starters. For mains, the slow-cooked pork belly with steamed buns and hoisin sauce, and roasted beef sirloin with mushroom and spinach pie and red wine butter.

Like the mains, the desserts didn't disappoint. We had dark chocolate mousse with avocado puree and praline, and cinnamon bavarois with apple strudel and creme anglaise.

The menu, we discovered, was designed and costed by the students themselves. Yet it was, quite frankly, spot-on.

The highlights were virtually everything we ate. The only hint that Four Seasons is a training restaurant was the slightly self-conscious service.

Head of the Culinary Arts department John Kelly has plans for the two restaurants to lift their commercial game further. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, with tertiary institutions looking to make money wherever possible. On the other hand, these budding chefs and waiters will soon be thrown into real world, where profit is king.
- Diana Clement
* Address: 55 Wellesley St East, Auckland City
* Hours: Open for lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday during the semester.
* Contact: (09) 921 9932
* On the web:
* Three-course lunch: $29

The Palm Room Restaurant,
Manukau Institute of Technology

From the road, MIT is a sprawling warren of entrances, exits and carparks so be prepared to crank down your window and ask for directions. The Palm Room is justifiably well known and frequented by the student body. It has an innovative approach to its rotating menus, basing them around pertinent local themes e.g. Parnell, Ponsonby, Fusion - and then, somewhat incongruously, Jamie Oliver.

I kicked things off with a minted pea soup with crispy pancetta, a lovely smooth, creamy, yet distinctly herbaceous emulsion, which was every bit as pea-sweet and mint-fresh as hoped. The salty, crisp pancetta rounded things out beautifully. Diana's warm salad with roasted squash, prosciutto and pecorino was a competent assembly of great parts.

I wasn't quite so wowed by the choices of mains, but this was more to do with the source material (drawn from one of Jamie Oliver's books) rather than the competency the students. I chose the pot-roasted beef served with potato and horseradish cake. The beef was tender and the jus-based gravy rich and flavoursome. The potato cake was very substantial, with a good back-of-the-palate burn from the horseradish. Diana's Lebanese lemon chicken was true to its description, with plenty of warm, lemony flavours and perfectly cooked chicken.
- Virgil Evetts
* Address: Gate 14, Alexander Cres, Otara, Manukau City
* Hours: Open for lunch and dinner selected weekdays during the semester. Bookings essential.
* Contact: (09) 968 7718
* On the web:
* Two-course menu: $17.50
* Three-course menu: $22.50
* Buffet menu: $15

Cornell Institute of Business and Technology

Cornell isn't exactly a household name. Nor does the nondescript facade of its building on Auckland's Hobson St indicate what delectable pleasures are to be had in its fourth-floor restaurant.

There, 135 students are training to become chefs in modern, purpose-built kitchens. When they complete their two-year courses they'll come out with an internationally recognised City and Guilds qualification.

The operation blew away my preconceptions about privately run educational institutes. Not only was the food as good - if not better - than I've had in a restaurant for some time, the students who are studying for diplomas in professional cookery and culinary arts appearto be making their mark, two of them landing part-time jobs at master chef Simon Gault's Euro Restaurant and Bar.

"Our focus is on trying to produce quality," said cookery programme manager Stephen Begg. On the day of our visit the students lived up to his expectations, serving us fresh New Zealand mussels steamed en papillote with fresh chermoula and julienned capsicum; New Zealand lamb loin rolled with a sundried tomato tapenade, wrapped in pancetta and roasted medium rare, served with a minted fresh pea risotto; and peach flan with a quenelle of creme chantilly.

Back in the kitchen, the students are all tasked with producing the menu but only the best examples make their way to the restaurant floor. I caught the chefs peeking out, clearly happy we were enjoying their creations.

At the time of writing Cornell's restaurant was not officially open to the public, but is expected to be so around October, when it launches front-of-house courses.
- Diana Clement

* Address: Cornell House Level 1,150 Hobson St, Auckland
* Hours: Open for lunch on selected weekdays during the semester. Phone to confirm. Bookings essential.
* Contact: (09) 367 1010
* On the web:
* Price: To be set, but expected to be $5-$10

North Shore International Academy (NSIA)

The only North Shore stop on our itinerary was NSIA, a private academy housed in an unassuming warehouse space in the industrial backblocks of Albany.

Behind its utilitarian facade, NSIA is a slick, uber-professional and gleamingly modern affair. More impressively, the school was set up by hospitality industry godfather Otto Groen QSM, the man best known for gaining New Zealand's very first restaurant liquor licence way back in 1961 and thereby dragging the local dining scene out of the dark ages.

Groen has always taken the classical European approach - that dining should be a complete package, composed of the very best service, ambience, food and wine. This philosophy was evident in every aspect of our lunch at NSIA.

As is the case with all of the schools we visited, the NSIA restaurant represents a convergence of courses and levels of study. But from the perspective of a diner, the experience was almost seamless and better than I've had in many professional restaurants of late.

We remarked more than once that NSIA is preparing its students not just for the hospitality industry per se, but the very highest end of the industry. The framed testimonials of past alumni lining the school's corridors confirm this, with placements in many of the world's great hotel chains and resorts.

Only one main was available by the time we were seated as the rather intriguing risotto verde had sold out. So we dined on fresh market fish with fennel and orange salad and potato-artichoke gateau.

The fish was sublimely fresh and perfectly sauteed in butter. The potato gateau was akin to a very delicate frittata, with perfectly cooked slices of waxy potato offset by the nutty complexity of artichoke. The accompanying salad of fennel bulb and orange was a perfect partner to the subtle flavours of the fish and a foil to the dense and weighty gateau. A lovely dish and of a standard I would be happy with anywhere.

The desserts on offer were tiramisu and apple, pecan and pinenut torte. These were true to the region du jour and were reliable crowd-pleasers. Both were prettily plated and precisely executed dishes. Full marks.

NSIA is not merely a hospitality school but a fine dining academy, and although a little out of the way compared to the other schools we visited, it is well worth the effort. It offers outstanding value at $7.50 a head for the two-course lunch and an almost flawless experience by any measure.
- Virgil Evetts
* Address: 8 Rothwell Ave, Albany, Auckland
* Hours: Open for lunch on selected weekdays during the academic year. Bookings essential.
* Contact: (09) 442 3456
* On the web:
* Two-course lunch: $7.50

Life's picks:
Auckland's culinary schools
Best cuisine: AUT
Best value for money: Cornell
Most impressive: NSIA

* The Auckland Hotel & Chefs Training School in Grafton is due to open its doors to the general public in September.