Could a restaurant that’s been open for 35 years still be a best-kept secret?

Absolutely.

And South Jersey’s longtime, best-kept secret is undeniably Careme’s, the faculty- and student-run restaurant at the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing.

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Despite opening 35 years ago on campus to serve as a training ground for students and an amazing eating experience for locals, Careme’s is certainly not the first restaurant people think about when looking for a night out or lunch away from the office.

“We do still hear people say that it is the best-kept secret in South Jersey,” says Dean Kelly McClay. “But those who do know about us — or find us — love the interaction with the students as well as the food. It’s funny when you hear them say, ‘And the students made this?’ Yep, they sure did.”

With a little help, of course.

The restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner while classes are in session, is overseen by McClay and her team of educators. This semester, Director of Culinary Operations Bruce Johns oversees lunch service while the front of the house is managed by Shantee Smith. At dinner, the front of the house is managed by Paula Carlson and the kitchen is managed by Ryan Macey, the new executive chef and owner of the acclaimed Café Loren in Avalon.

Careme’s is a best-kept secret for so many reasons. It’s understandable why people may not find it — tucked inside a building on campus in the outskirts of Mays Landing and only open while classes are in session. But once people do discover this dining gem, they keep coming back.

For starters, Careme’s offers tremendous value. A three-course lunch will set you back just $12.50, while the same structure for dinner is $25.

“Part of the reason it’s so inexpensive is that we want to make sure people come in and eat, because that’s the whole idea of this — to be an educational experience,” McClay says. “And if there’s no one there to serve, how can they learn? The tuition the students pay also offsets the cost of the meals.”

Everything is made from scratch, locally sourced as much as possible, and often featuring items right from the growing pods on the wall in the dining room or from the organic greenhouse.

“We are so proud of our sustainable program,” McClay says. “Right now, if you come to lunch or dinner, most of the lettuces as well as carrots, beets, radishes, peas, green beans, cucumbers, spinach, Swiss chard, lemongrass, peppers and herbs were grown by us, picked by us and then cooked by us. It’s a great way to teach our students how important that is, but it’s even better for those who are eating here.”

A recent lunch featured choice of a creamy, scrumptious cauliflower soup or local greens salad. Entrée choices were dynamite, particularly the roasted chicken shepherd’s pie with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a sweet tea, and the Southern-fried chicken with creamy grits that was hands down one of the best chicken and grits dishes I ever devoured. Other selections included pan-seared salmon with white bean ragout, bistro steak frites and roasted tomato and mushroom mac and cheese. The desserts rotate with the rest of the menu and are also made by the faculty and students.

Dinner is even more impressive as the service is kicked up a notch to be slightly more formal without losing its casual pace, and the food is a tad more sophisticated. The menu reads like an abbreviated gourmet room from Atlantic City with something for everyone.

Start with onion bisque or Careme’s house salad with mixed lettuces, cucumber, tomato, candied pecan and balsamic vinaigrette. Then move on to entrees such as pan-roasted chicken with Szechuan green beans, sesame carrot slaw and wasabi aioli; pan-seared salmon with herb and olive oil orzo, charred tomato and tzatziki sauce; char-grilled steak with potato hash and poached egg vinaigrette; grilled pork chop with braised purple cabbage, apple chutney and apple cider gastrique; and a daily pasta special.

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Careme's ATS

The pan seared salmon dish is by far the biggest seller at Careme’s Gourmet Restaurant.

Finish off your experience with some s’mores chocolate mousse, apple cobbler and a daily panna cotta.

You can fall in love with the pricing — remember, all gratuities go to an education scholarship fund — just don’t fall in love with any menu.

“They change all of the time because we strive to use as much seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients as possible,” McClay says. “The menu changes daily because ingredients dictate that it does.”

A major part of the Careme’s experience is that people interact with students and they learn from each other.

“Some students who you think won’t do well in that environment because they are shy or not social or whatever turn out to be these wonderful ambassadors of the program,” says McClay, the dean for the last 10 years with a 23-year tenure at the academy. “What’s great is that by the time they are done, they’ve hosted, served, worked the line, answered the phone, washed dishes, baked, worked the dessert station, the cold food station, the a la carte line … it’s an opportunity to rotate through the whole experience.”

Does anyone change their minds after that hard work?

“We don’t get too many mind changers at that point,” McClay says. “By the time they hit dinner service, they have been in the program for a year. But what they do say is they appreciate the opportunity to have some input about specials. It’s really the first time their opinion is being solicited because up to that point instructors are saying, ‘Do this and do that,’ and there is no deviation from this or that. Then they come into the restaurant and have more freedom. Dinner service is a true group effort where the instructor is supportive and encouraging them to be creative. They appreciate that.”

McClay says Careme’s will always evolve because, well … that’s kind of the point.

“The menus will always evolve and our instruction always evolves, but one thing I would like to do is grow our sustainable practices and build waste reduction into a program so students realize what happens to products that don’t get used,” McClay says. “We can help alleviate the pressure on landfills and affect the environment.

Careme’s evolution

Careme’s has been on the campus of Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing — in one form or another — for 35 years. It was originally in the C Building as a very formal dining room reminiscent of an upscale French restaurant, with a liquor license.

Named after the first “celebrity chef” in culinary history, Marie-Antoine Careme, whose command of culinary art was so famous in the early 19th century that he became known as “the chef of kings and the king of chefs,” it moved to its current location in 1981 and expanded in 1991. It also received a renovation a few years ago, receiving new flooring, furniture, window treatments, neutral color tones and more to make it feel contemporary, replacing a former color scheme of gaudy pinks and blues.

Students receive their fundamental classes for two semesters and master basic skills with culinary and pastry exposure before moving into the lunch curriculum, which offers a bistro experience for both students and diners. The lunch service is for organizational skills and timing, as well as to give students an understanding of what it’s like to be in the industry.

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Briana Husak, 22, of Vineland, works in the kitchen at Careme’s Gourmet Restaurant on the campus of Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. Husak is a student working toward a degree in Food Service Management.

At one point, the lunch service was a very elaborate buffet, but the faculty decided to transform lunch service to a more bistro-style experience because of people’s changed, more healthy eating habits.

After receiving more hands-on experience in the industry, students come back for a final semester, the evening dinner service class, where the faculty simulates the real-life, fine-dining experience as much as possible.

On average, 40 students are working in Careme’s per semester for lunch and dinner. Two-year students receive associate’s degrees upon completion. A one-year culinary certificate is available, but the students do not work in Careme’s as part of their certificate. However, they are encouraged to stay and take those classes beyond their certificate if they choose to.

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