Learning with your Lunch at Leis Family Class Act
What’s your definition of service in the restaurant industry?
Answer carefully. This one will be on the final!
“That’s how I know whether or not they’ve accomplished learning what I’ve shown them,” says Dining Room Lecturer Mark Malone, with the culinary program at University of Hawaii Maui College. “To understand how to anticipate guest needs, how to be organized.”
Malone also serves as Service Manager at the school’s student-run restaurant, Leis Family Class Act, in the Pa’ina Building on the UH Maui campus. Students from the Advanced Cooking and Dining Room courses come together to serve a lavish lunch two times a week during the semester, honing skills in both the front and back of the house.
“After eight weeks, they switch; they cook while the other half serves,” explains Chef Instructor Tom Lelli, who leads the kitchen at Class Act. “Then at the end of eight weeks, they run the restaurant by themselves; we call it Student Day.”
Malone says the transition from cook to server can be a scary one for students, who need to present each course on the ever-changing menu.
“We take them and put them in the front of the house, out of their element, where they have to be in front of the guest and on stage if you would, and get them set up for success,” Malone explains.
Lelli and Malone are the only two professionals in the operation; students are responsible for the rest, and learning takes priority in the kitchen and on the dining room floor, even during busy service times.
“We run it like a business but we always put the education first,” says Lelli. “We really want them to have a successful, confident experience.
The restaurant course is a culmination of many classes that came before, which Lelli says provide a crucial culinary foundation.
“We couldn’t do this without them: Beginning Baking, Beginning Skills class where they learn how to cut, and Basic Cooking, and they learn how to do production downstairs in the food court.”
At Class Act, students prepare and serve a four-course meal, including appetizer and salad options, soup, choice of entrée, and a “decadent” or light dessert. The lunches typically sell out quickly once the menus go public. Those menus feature flavors from different parts of the world each week, with cuisines like French, Moroccan, Italian, American and Latin, to expose students to a variety of flavor profiles, ingredients and cooking methods.
Four-course lunch prices range between $30 and $42 per person, all to support the school.
“Our class is self-sustaining; all the money we make here goes back into our general fund which we operate the school with,” Lelli says.
Even tip money goes toward kitchen supplies, equipment and other student needs.
Mikiala Holley is pursuing both the cooking and pastry programs, and says it’s been great for learning life lessons along with some solid culinary and service skills. For many of the cooking students, this is their first time as servers, building a healthy respect for what happens outside the kitchen.
“They’ve never really understood that side, so it’s a really good experience to get that other perspective,” says Holley.
The restaurant regularly receives rave reviews and ratings, including #1 Best Overall Restaurant in Hawai‘i in monthly rankings on OpenTable. The ratings, based on 400,000 new diner reviews via the worldwide online reservations hub, also scored Class Act #1 in the categories of Best Food, Fit for Foodies, and Best Value.
Holley also likes that the program is so close to home and builds confidence in the kitchen, whether she’s working in a commercial operation or cooking for loved ones.
“Even if decide I’m not into it 10 years from now, I have all these experiences of learning how to bake, cook certain things a certain way; I have that professional knowledge,” she adds.
Graduates leave the program prepared to join a professional culinary team, with plenty of options on Maui, from high-end resorts to independent businesses. Alum Travis Morrin took his talents and opened Three’s Bar & Grill, then Fork & Salad in Kīhei with his two business partners and best friends. He credits the culinary arts program for showing him what was possible.
“It was some of the most incredible food I had ever seen, tasted or been a part of,” he remembers. “What we produced was at such a high level, you were just really proud of it. I’m continually amazed at the quality of the service; the food is incredible, and it’s done by the students!”
Morrin goes in to speak to culinary students about his experiences and businesses; students also get the chance to take their skills outside of the classroom to assist with Three’s thriving catering operation.
“From boat catering to weddings to food truck, the students can come out and earn their hours, learn some actual industry practices and try so many different styles of events with our company,” Morrin explains, “For the students who do really well, they land jobs at Three’s and Fork & Salad.”
Even after nine years, Morrin has maintained connections with his instructors, including Lelli, who has taught many other notable names in Maui’s culinary scene.
“A lot of people start their own businesses like Travis; quite a few actually,” Lelli says. “Sheldon Simeon was at our school, he’s on Top Chef right now; Jeff Scheer, he’s got a big thing going over at The Mill House.”
Morrin and his business partners also help the culinary program by giving time to fundraisers like Noble Chef, and he says supporting “the future of Maui’s culinary generation” will never be put on the back burner.
“It’s all educational; you can learn these things, you can make mistakes,” he says, “but the service, the food on a daily basis, is some of the best you can get anywhere.”