Unique staff at Ranger Cafe prepares for October opening

On October 27th, the Ranger Café will open its doors to the public. The 50-seat venue will offer a smart selection of salads, sandwiches and entrees. The hours, however, are a bit limited; the eatery is only open three hours a week: on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from noon to 1:30 p.m.

Why such tight time slots? The Ranger Café is housed inside Lakewood High School (LHS), 14100 Franklin Boulevard, and is run completely by students.

"The juniors are here from 8 to 11 a.m. They really help prepare and setup the restaurant," says culinary arts instructor Devan Corti. The seniors take the reins from noon to 2:15 pm. "They also prep and help setup, but then they are the ones who are here during hours of operation. They are cooking, serving, hosting, dishwashing.  Any real positions out there in an actual restaurant, that's what they're doing here."

"It's a self-contained little business," adds culinary arts instructor Rob McGorray.

The 6,000-square-foot café is housed in what was once LHS's East Cafeteria. The space includes a demonstration classroom, dining room and a gleaming kitchen loaded with professional equipment including six ovens, three industrial ranges, two convection ovens, a freezer, walk-in cooler and a smoker for processing turkey and homemade pastrami.

"We've been brining it, curing it and smoking it," says Corti. The savory meat then gets piled onto sandwiches with cheese, pickled onions, and various other toppings. The menu also includes soup of the day, quiche of the day, a smoked cheddar burger, fish 'n chips and filet mignon among other offerings. The group is still working out the dessert menu.

The program is under the aegis of the West Shore Career-Technical District, which offers a host of vocational programs and caters to students from Lakewood, Rocky River, Bay Village and Westlake. Currently, the culinary arts program serves 20 juniors and 11 seniors, all of whom are hard at work preparing for next month's opening.

In addition to running the café, students perform any number of food labs that center on skills such as cooking techniques, making homemade stocks as well as some standards.

"They always love making pizza," says Corti. Other favorites include soup lab and ice cream lab. Homemade breads (focaccia, Asiago, sandwich buns) are also house specialties.

Students can eat food they prepare and take home lab leftovers. As for the café, which is marking its sixth year in the former cafeteria space, customers include regular janes and joes, teachers, staff members and community groups. During school hours, however, the café cannot sell food to students on account of regulations surrounding public school lunch programs.

Culinary arts students also complete a formal food safety curriculum, and learn about aspects of the industry the laymen takes for granted such as the proper labeling for items in the "Grab and Go" cooler. As in any kitchen, unpredictability always looms. When it strikes, McGorray teaches kids to tackle it with an "adapt and overcome" methodology.

"How do you restart the fryer or lift the heavy thing without hurting your back? How do you fix a vinaigrette?" poses McGorray. "What do you do if the chef forgot to order the chicken? What if there's a power outage? What do we do?" He recalls when a snow day wiped out 30 reservations. The solution? A staff lunch for the teachers the next day.

"We’ve had it all," adds Corti of life's little surprises. 

In addition to instruction, hands-on learning and running the café, students round out their experience with culinary competitions, bake sales and field trips to serve families at the Ronald McDonald House. But the real the icing in this kitchen isn't on the cake.

"We're not just teaching you how to sauté," says Corti. "We're teaching life skills. We're teaching you how to function in the real world and how to make money at it."

"It's thinking on your feet—problem solving," adds McGorray. "That will get you farther than just a degree."

The public is welcome at Ranger Café, although reservations are strongly recommended. Call 216-529-4165 and select "1."

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.