Instructor’s restaurant expertise enhances college culinary program
The difference was just an inch, less than that, even, but restaurants can live in the seemingly unnoticed details. On some level, consciously or not, it makes a difference whether the tray is propped on a server’s shoulder or lifted above it, even just a little.
“Try to lift that tray off your shoulder if you can,” advised Angie Arreola as Tina Kreifeldt pushed through the swinging doors from the Western Colorado Community College culinary arts kitchen into Chez Lena, the program’s student-run restaurant.
Kreifeldt’s left hand was bent under a brown tray the size of a bicycle wheel, bringing starters of herb-crusted ahi tuna with a farro salad to lunchtime customers. She nodded and said, “I try to. I just worry about dropping it.”
Arreola nodded sympathetically. It’s a scary thing to raise that tray even half an inch off the shoulder, “but customers appreciate seeing that it’s away from their face, away from their hair. They appreciate the skill and precision,” she said.
Through almost five decades in the restaurant service industry, Angie, 66, has cultivated a unique tableside perspective on what makes restaurants — and more importantly, customers — tick.While most of the glory often goes to the kitchen, “a lot of the time, it’s what goes on in the front of the house that can make or break a restaurant,” she said.
“She has years and years of experience, decades of it,” said Dan Kirby, director of the college’s culinary arts program. “She’s been a server and a trainer for the best of the best restaurants that the Grand Valley has had over the years, and she brings that experience in fine dining to our students.”
Angie has been an instructor at the college since 2005, teaching students in the culinary arts program every aspect of the front of the restaurant and helping them learn to navigate between the front and the kitchen.
They’re skills she began learning herself as a teenager in Moab, Utah, where she got her first restaurant job at Poor Boy Drive-In — now Moab Diner — when she was 13. She worked as a car hop, delivering 29-cent hamburgers to customers “but not on roller skates,” she recalled, laughing. “We didn’t even have sidewalks back then.”
While a student studying biology at the University of Utah, she worked as a server at restaurants around Salt Lake City to support herself. Moving to the San Francisco Bay area with friends after college, she taught high school biology for a year, but then realized that she simply liked working in restaurants better.
And that’s where she met her husband, Jesus. They worked in the same restaurant, fell in love and got married. Two daughters followed, and after realizing that their oldest would be entering kindergarten in a school with necessary security guards, they took Angie’s parents up on an offer of buying some of their land in the Grand Valley.
Soon after moving here, Angie got a job at the Timbers, a North Avenue landmark that now is a lounge but used to be a fine dining restaurant.
“That’s where I first met her,” Kirby recalled. “I remember she had a real rapport with her customers.”
In addition to the Timbers, she has worked at the Winery, Gladstone’s for 20 years, the Red Canyon Grille, Red Lobster and, most recently, Il Bistro Italiano for about seven years. She became known by restaurant patrons throughout the area for her show-stopping coffee pouring, in which she held the urn above her head and always hit the cup held at her waist without spilling a drop.
“I love Angie,” said Brunella Gualerzi, Il Bistro Italiano owner and chef. “She parallels the history of restaurants in Grand Junction and she’s a great lady. She’s very friendly, very approachable and she’s very quick with a joke or a come-back in terms of making customers laugh.”
Angie took a hiatus from Il Bistro last year after a health concern, but continued at WCCC because she loves working with students, she said, and relishes the opportunity to teach them that “service isn’t a second-choice job,” she explained. “This isn’t something you have to do if there’s nothing else. It’s different every day, it’s fun, you get immediate feedback, you have money in your pocket and it’s not a job where you have to take the stresses of work home with you.”
And when her students are feeling the stress that comes with being new to the industry as they learn the ropes in Chez Lena, she smiles and offers a compliment.
“You did a really good job engaging (your customers) just now,” she praised Buck Earle on a recent Tuesday. “It can be really hard to find that balance of being attentive but not hovering, knowing when you need to stop by their table.”
Earlier, she’d straightened his black bow tie before doing a last tour of the dining room before it opened at 11:30 a.m.
“Tina, if you get a second, would you get one of those pink towels and touch up the mirrors on the tables,” she asked Kreifeldt. She’d been checking that day’s centerpieces — square mirrors topped with flat iridescent marbles, two flowers and an oil candle — and noticed a few fingerprints on some of the mirrors.
“Guests notice things like that,” Angie said. “You’d think it’s not a big deal, but a lot of restaurants fail because of what happens at the front of the house.”
Earlier, she’d shoved a paddle up into the ice machine to get it unstuck, consulted with Earle on the citrus elements of the virgin cocktail he’d created that day, asked Kreifeldt to vacuum a few tiny scraps of white paper off the dining room carpet and scrutinized that day’s reservations.
Working in Chez Lena is where students truly learn the restaurant industry, she said, because the hands-on experience is invaluable. But she also teaches a Monday classroom component to their Advanced Line Cooking and Dining Room Management class.
On the day when the lesson dealt with alcohol, Angie and Aly Kirby, with whom she team teaches, asked the students to gather at the Chez Lena tables, gave them a quiz and then dived right in.
“Who knows what BAC is?” Angie asked.
“Blood alcohol content,” a student answered.
From there, the lesson veered to the difference between alcohol weights and percentages, the difference between bourbon and scotch, what differentiates tequila from mescal and the vagaries of other types of alcohol.
“Absinthe, what’s that?” Earle asked.
“Illegal,” Angie joked.
Later, she asked, “Why do you think college kids like beer so well?” and nodded when students offered that it’s cheap, it’s readily available and it tastes good.
Then, she sketched different shapes of glasses onto white paper and asked students to identify what type of drink goes in which glass. She prompted the students and let them try talking through possible answers.
“We have wonderful students in this program,” she said. “They’re curious, they’re excited about the industry and, hopefully, with my experience, I can help them make the transition into a career they’ll really enjoy.”
And part of that enjoyment will be based on a foundation of napkins folded just so and water glasses that are always full. These are things Angie knows well.