Low-price, high-end fare at Kendall College

To Debbie Schwalenberg of New Holstein, it was a final exam. To me, it was an unusual, scrumptious and good-looking meal.

Eating someone else’s homework can be a pleasure, when it happens at Kendall College in Chicago. Fine dining at subsidized prices gives tomorrow’s chefs real-life experience.

“My ultimate goal is to manage my own business,” Debbie says. That could involve catering, cooking classes or a deli. She sees opportunity in more than one direction.

This Calumet County native is one of about 700 culinary arts enrollees at Kendall, and we met during the Grand Buffet, an event that tests the talents of 12-18 students, who prepare garde manger: pates, mousses, terrines and other fancy nibbles for appetizer platters. Instructors evaluate taste, technique, appearance, creativity, execution of theme.

“I put a lot of deadlines into their work,” says Pierre Checchi, chef instructor. “I drill them” to prepare students for real-life situations.

“We have a reputation for being tough on our students,” echoes Christopher Koetke, culinary program dean. “The students who thrive on the challenge are going to take on the industry.”

So standards are high and the public benefits because of it. Debbie’s contribution to Grand Buffet included samples of curry smoked chicken salad, served on crackers with Indian spices. Dave Baudek of Hartland (Waukesha County) presented a rabbit and venison terrine, plus crostini topped with spicy goat cheese and a vegetable tapenade.

Other students presented a small selection of hot entrees (such as pastas, which looked great but I hardly touched them) and a to-die-for dessert table. Students also wait on tables, and all are being graded as they work. The cost is $25 for this unorthodox, all-you-can-eat spread – excellent value, especially by Chicago standards.

“When you eat here, you are taking part in the education of the students,” says the dean, who estimates that actual costs are roughly twice what customers pay for a meal.

For more about menus and hours at The Dining Room, Kendall College, 900 N. North Branch St., Chicago: www.kendall.edu, 312-752-2328. Check out the exhibits of antique cooking equipment; artifacts are up to 500 years old.

Five-course banquet-style dining on Monday nights during winter will concentrate on Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. Menu themes: southeast Asia, Feb. 23; Greece, March 2; and India, March 9. Cost is $38, plus gratuity. Diners are allowed to bring in a bottle of wine; there is no corkage fee.

Fixed-price and a la carte menus for lunch and dinner are available on most other days. Reservations are necessary. The next Grand Buffets are Feb. 18 and March 12. It is a hot ticket that requires a reservation weeks in advance.

Other ways to enjoy the Windy City without breaking the pocketbook:

Chicago’s first public library, now known as the Chicago Cultural Center, is one of my favorite buildings in the city. It cost $2 million to construct in 1897; the building’s 38-foot Tiffany stained-glass dome (the biggest in the world) alone is worth $35 million today. Imported marble and glass mosaics also defend the sturdy and glorious architecture.

Expect free art exhibits, concerts and other programs. Free building tours start at 1:15 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Chicago tourism information also is dispensed here.

For more about the block-long Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. and 77 E. Randolph St.: www.chicagoculturalcenter.org, 312-744-6630.

When the weather cooperates, hang out at Millennium Park, one of the nation’s most stylishly creative urban spaces. Flocks of people ice skate on the park’s rink for free (it’s $10 to rent skates), and kids splash around the 50-foot-tall Crown Fountain in summer.

See yourself in the city skyline by wandering over to Cloud Gate, which looks like a giant drop of mercury. Free tours begin in May. For more about Millennium Park, 55 N. Michigan Ave.: www.millenniumpark.org, 312-742-1168.

Save on driving headaches and high parking fees by driving a car in Kenosha or Harvard, Ill., and taking a Metra train into Chicago’s downtown. Travel on a Saturday or Sunday, and the roundtrip fare is $5. This Weekend Pass allows unlimited hop-on/hop-off travel and is available year-round.

Pay another $5 for a Chicago Transit Authority Visitor Pass, which allows 24 hours of unlimited travel on city buses and elevated trains. Passes for up to five days also are available. It’s best to order the Visitor Pass online, before leaving home; city transit outlets sometimes are run out.

For more about Metra: www.metrarail.com, 312-322-6777. For more about CTA: www.transitchicago.com, 888-YOUR-CTA.

You can pay $15 to see for miles from the John Hancock Center sky deck, or go two floors HIGHER and enjoy the view while lingering over a drink at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor. The options are comparable in price.

For more about the Signature Lounge, 875 N. Michigan Ave.: www.signatureroom.com, 312-787-9596. Hours are 11 a.m. to at least 12:30 a.m. On the 95th floor is the Signature Restaurant, where you’ll certainly pay more than the sky deck ticket.

A $59 CityPass provides quick (as in “no waiting”) admission to five popular Chicago attractions: Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry, and Hancock Observatory or Sears Tower Skydeck. Full price would be $111.

For more: www.citypass.com. Other versions of the CityPass cover 10 locations elsewhere in the U.S. and Toronto.

Time a visit to Chicago right, and museum/attraction admission is free. The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, is free from 5-8 p.m. Thursdays. Consult www.choosechicago.com (search for “free museum days”), 312-567-8500.

Full disclosure: I was the guest of Kendall College when attending a recent Grand Buffet. Be aware that culinary arts programs in Wisconsin also may offer fine dining opportunities at a discount.

One example: Madison Area Technical College’s Truax Campus, 3550 Anderson St., Madison, where the Gourmet Dining Room serves elaborate meals to the public from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, until April 23. Cost is $17; reservations required. For more: www.matcmadison.edu/gourmet, 608-246-MENU.