More than a restaurant: MCC's Tartan Bistro prepares culinary students for careers

"Definitely the grouper," says MCC Culinary student Ethan Schulz of his favorite dish to prepare. "It's delicious."

Schulz is one of 12 students getting hands-on experience this spring in MCC's culinary degree capstone class, Tartan Bistro.

The restaurant class, which started in 2011, teaches students to apply the skills they've learned in the culinary program by working every role in a restaurant, from wait staff to chefs to cleaning staff.

The students are divided into two groups - front of the house and back of the house - and spend eight weeks in both positions.

"It's so important for the students to see how interdependent each role is," said chef Tina Drzal, MCC culinary program department chair. "We hire a culinary student worker as dishwasher so we can closely model how a real kitchen operates."

Student Lenny Harris returned to school not to go into the industry, but to learn a valuable life skill. He uses his newfound talents to throw dinner parties for friends.

"I'll host a chef night for their families and get the kids involved in the kitchen. I even wear my chef uniform to make the experience more official," he said. "It's a great opportunity to pass along the knowledge I've learned at MCC."

This is Harris's second time through Tartan Bistro - he graduated in December 2022 but wanted to come back to finish the program with the classmates he started with in Culinary 101.

"One of the things I realized in Tartan Bistro is how much the absence of one person can affect the whole operation," he said. "We of course always rally together and get the job done, but the impact of missing just one person is definitely felt."

Ethan Schulz also noted the importance of teamwork in the restaurant business.

"Working on the line is much different than working solo or cooking at home," he said. "You really have to cooperate with each other."

While in the back of house position, Schulz found the work to be manageable and not as intimidating as he thought going in.

"The prep work wasn't as hard as I thought it would be," he said. "I felt prepared by the knowledge I gained in the culinary classes before heading into Tartan Bistro."

Students have the chance to practice recipes and plating before the restaurant opens, and also receive a mini lesson on wine/food pairings.

"I think students really enjoy the opportunity to learn these skills in what I call our 'bubble,'" said Drzal. "In many semesters, our students have zero serving experience, so I manage the reservations carefully to ease them into the experience of serving."

Reservations at the Tartan Bistro are in high demand, with tables booking out months in advance. The 2023 season ended May 4.

"I limit the amount of tables available each night, and we don't allow parties larger than six people so the students aren't overwhelmed," said Drzal. "We also stagger seating times: 6, 6:15, 6:30, and 6:45 p.m. We've found these times work best for our operation."

Local employers such as Duke's, Bull Valley Country Club, and Region Kitchen and Bar have hired students from MCC's culinary program.

"I think they appreciate that we really stress the importance of showing up and being on time, ready to work," Drzal said. "They also appreciate that we cycle students through both front-of-house and back-of-house roles, and that we encourage them to take Pastry Skills 101 as part of their degree. Knowing basic pastry skills makes a culinary student a preferred hire."

The community gets another chance to sample students' skills in the fall when MCC's culinary program opens its student-run bakery, Sweet Scots.

"We want to give our students as many hands-on opportunities as possible so they graduate ready to serve our community as future restaurant owners, bakers, chefs, and bartenders." Drzal said.

Follow @TartanBistroMCC on Instagram.

Sweet Scots Bakery will open in September; follow it on Instagram @SweetScotsBakeryMCC for updates.

Culinary program beginner classes including Culinary 101 and Pastry 101 start in the fall semester.

For more on MCC's culinary program, visit

Culinary students are divided into front-of-house and back-of-house roles and spend eight weeks in both positions. McHenry County College's student-run Tartan Bistro has become a favorite in the community with tables booking out weeks in advance. Shown is student Serina Leon. Courtesy of McHenry County College
McHenry County College's student-run Tartan Bistro gives culinary students, such as, from left, Taylor Aggarwal and Serina Leon, experience in all aspects of running a restaurant. Courtesy of McHenry County College
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