Olivia Berger rolls out pizza dough in preparation for a meal at McNary's Cafe 159. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Olivia Berger rolls out pizza dough in preparation for a meal at McNary’s Cafe 159. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The margherita pizza is divine, extra cheesy and with a crust that is hearty, but not overfilling. The Thai chicken slice is a tad overdone, but more flavorful for it. The main course was preceded by a salad of leafy greens, cranberries, almonds and feta cheese,  topped with just the right amount of vinagerette that brought out the best of the other ingredients. Fresh-made mint chocolate and strawberry ice cream that arrived for dessert at the perfect time, and with a smile. Both flavors are sumptuous, a delightful combination of cool and refreshing.

If McNary High School’s young chefs prove consistent, Cafe 159 might very well become the hottest lunch ticket in Keizer.

“It’s like getting spoiled in the middle of the day,” said teacher Marrla Wilkinson as she sat down in  the bistro section of Room 159 at McNary. Thursday, Jan. 8, was only the second sit-down service for the seven Lady Celts who run Cafe 159, but Wilkinson was one of the lucky ones making her second visit.

“The first time was in November and it was a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, gravy and some sides,” said senior Makenzie Young-Jackson, one of the chefs and servers.

Not so long ago, such service was something of a pipe dream. The McNary culinary offerings were much more minimal due to a lack of proper facilities – think electric stove tops and ovens found in residential kitchens.

“We were making mac and cheese out of a box,” said Young-Jackson, who has been enrolling in culinary classes since her freshman year. “Now, we’re making homemade ice cream and pizza dough from scratch.”

“It’s more like a restaurant, and all of our techniques have taken that big step forward,” said Regan Comstock, a junior who will graduate in June.

The kitchen facilities were renovated as part of a Career and Technical Education Revitalization grant through the Oregon Department of Education.

“The new kitchen has given the students exposure to equipment they will see in the industry: convection ovens, flat top grills and warming/proofing ovens. We have also configured the room so that we have the centers that are represented in industry: bake station, hot line, cold line, dining room,” said Sheri Bond, McNary’s culinary arts teacher.

McNary senior Cheyenne Shepherd said the remodel has changed the way the team behind Cafe 159 thinks about cooking.

“When we were cooking for ourselves, we didn’t think much about how the food looked, but the feedback we’ve gotten has been how much people like how the whole meal feels like what they would find at a sit-down restaurant. That means it has to look good,” Shepherd said.

From planning to prep to plating and service, the culinary team, which includes Olivia Berger, Jolie Larimer, Valeria Sanchez and Sami Trowbridge, has a hand in all of it. On the days when bistro service is offered, they give up their own lunches to prepare for customers.

They are assisted by Chef Russ Langstadt, who mentors the girls and tries to create an atmosphere similar to what they would encounter in real-world settings.

“I want to give a life skill to those who don’t want to cook professionally, and I want to take the ones who do want to cook professionally and help them get there,” Langstadt said.

That means paying special attention to knife skill and basic cooking methods, but exposing the students to the wide range of foods available is of utmost importance.

“Like with the margherita pizza, today,” Langstadt said. “Many of the girls had never even heard of it before. I also want them to understand what it means to cook from scratch.”

Bond said the team is hoping to offer sit-down service twice a month for faculty members in the short term, but there’s a bigger vision in the offing.

“We are very much looking forward to opening to the community. We will need to figure out exactly which days we will operate, and then the best way to let the community know. But, we do need to work from reservations as our budget doesn’t really allow for us to cook large amounts of food in hope that someone comes,” she said.

While the young women behind Cafe 159 are picking up hands-on skills that might help in a variety of professions, there’s also more to it than what happens behind the kitchen doors.

“It’s the one class I enjoy going to. If it wasn’t for this class, I wouldn’t really know what I would want to do,” Comstock said.