DECATUR – Arthur Gross had a surprise in store for his 65th birthday Wednesday.

The retired Decatur librarian had expected a pleasant birthday dinner at Richland Community College with a group of friends and his wife, Katie, but he found an extra reason to celebrate.

Before exploring an assortment of Spanish cuisine, he was announced as the Culinary Art Institute's 2,500th diner. In addition to receiving a mug from the Coffee House, a bag of the college's custom coffee blend and an apron from the institute, he was serenaded by a dining room full of people.

“It was really a treat, definitely a rare opportunity,” he said.

“He comes to almost every occasion, and we've had so many good meals here,” added Katie Gross, a children's librarian at the Decatur Public Library.

What was an ethnic dinner for attendees was also the final project for students enrolled in the International Cuisine course.

About a month ago, four teams of students were each assigned a region of Spain to serve as a foundation for their dishes.

“It's been really fun but challenging,” culinary student Emily Lichtenberger said. “We were responsible for everything: researching the cities in the region, recipes, submitting the order (for ingredients).”

Representing southern Spain, Lichtenberger's group offered dishes including gazpacho, a cold tomato-based soup, and torta de Seville, a pizza-like tart with bacon, figs and caramelized onions.

Other dishes included ox tail and churros for the Madrid area; rice pudding and fabada, a casserole with beans and ribs, for northwestern Spain; and sopas mallorquinas, a spicy vegetable stew, for the northeastern region.

“You don't get too many ethnic foods in Decatur, so it's nice to try something you're not used to,” Katie Gross said.

Chef Brian Tucker, director of the institute, said International Cuisine is one of the most advanced courses in the program, so the final project is designed to give the students hands-on experience and combine what they have learned in previous classes.

“From planning to execution, this is real-word experience they're going to see in the industry every day,” he said. “They learn to think on their feet and adapt to situations.”

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