ATLANTIC CITY — Long before the guests in black ties and long gowns arrived Thursday night at the Atlantic Cape Community College Restaurant Gala, the chefs and students in white coats and checked pants were preparing the food the crowd would start their night with.

The Restaurant Gala is a fundraiser for scholarships to the college's Academy of Culinary Arts. And for ACA, the event is a reason to call all hands on deck.

Culinary-school students spent three long days, and nights, getting the appetizers ready for the 90-minute cocktail party that kicks off the night. And Bruce Johns, the ACA's culinary-operations director, said that preparation process isn't just about the money the night raises. It's also a learning experience for the students — who will all work at least one Restaurant Gala before they finish the program.

"Most people in the culinary field will never put out a hors d' oeuvre party for close to 1,000 guests," said Johns, a veteran of 23 Restaurant Galas — although Atlantic Cape's staff put the actual head count at closer to 800 people who paid $225 a ticket for the evening of food.

About 80 students worked in two shifts, morning and night, from early Tuesday to party time Thursday in the kitchen complex at Bally's Atlantic City, which hosted the gala. And they made appetizers that ranged from the classic to the extreme.

Kelly McClay, the ACA's dean, gave a partial provision list that included "180 pounds of shrimp, 800 clams, 800 oysters ... 60 pounds of tuna loin," she said, ticking off a few of the classics. Then she continued with "40 pounds of trotters," which brought up a question: What is a trotter?

"Pig's feet," said McClay, who has seen this event go from about 250 guests when she started 19 years ago to the current count of 800 or so. College officials said the night generated $155,000 for its cause.

One of her favorite appetizers of the evening was a "takeoff on chicken and waffles," McClay said, explaining that the waffle batter was closer to funnel cake — because this 31st annual gala had a circus theme. That was topped with a "chicken-liver butter," which was the base for a fresh-made chicken nugget that was then drizzled with a maple glaze.

Of course, it wasn't students coming up with menu items like that on their own. McClay said the ACA's staff of professional chefs is also involved right from the start, and "the students get to see the chefs do some real work in the kitchen, instead of just telling them what to do. It's a very different environment for the students, and they learn a lot about industry expectations."

Back in a prep kitchen, after a team got finished pulling duck hearts and duck livers out of roasting trays, a voice piped up with an announcement:

"I need empanadas," a white-coated chef said, with the urgency of a surgeon. And like a trauma team, about eight students stepped over to his table and started moving the short-rib empanadas where they needed to be.

More students were out at the serving stations, where Tim Snabble, of Wildwood, was practicing her litany of what she was serving. There was a shot-glass-sized portion of "chilled cherry soup with almond dust," asparagus in prosciutto and "smoked scallops and fingerling-potato salad," among other options.

And then the doors opened and the people in the tuxes and gowns and started in and started eating.

Crystal Yankasky, a guest from Absecon, said she had been to the gala last year — "and that's why I'm back this year."

Her first taste of the night was some of that cherry soup, which she said was delicious.

"I just enjoy all the food, and the whole atmosphere," she said.

All these appetizers were just the first course. The real stars of the show are the treats dished out by 40 high-end restaurants from Cape May to Atlantic City and beyond. But for some of those fancy-dressed guests, the real highlight of the night is the gala's legendary dessert reception.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.