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Culinary student experiences an edible education
Johnson High School junior creates colorful menu at bistro
Ryan Hardin counts the number of desserts before taking them out to a large table at The Bistro at the Oaks. The 17-year-old is a culinary student at Lanier Charter Career Academy, which is part of the Hall County School System. - photo by J.K. Devine

Tapas tasting menu

What: Final senior project

When: 11 a.m. to noon May 1 and 2

Where: 2719 Tumbling Creek Road, Gainesville

Contact: or 770-532-3161 ext. 111

For the chicken thighs with radishes, beets and asparagus recipe, click here.

When it was Erika Castaneda’s turn to come up with a menu for her week as head chef at The Bistro at the Oaks, she drew inspiration from a recent vacation.

The Johnson High School junior and third-year culinary student at Lanier Charter Career Academy returned from a trip to California a few months earlier and was impressed by the colorful dishes she tasted. She wanted to incorporate her experience into her menu.

“I first started off thinking ‘What do I want to do? Something American, Asian? What do I like?’” Castaneda said. “I thought about when I went to California and all of these restaurants and some of the things stood out to me. I like very colorful plates, so I went toward bright foods.”

Castaneda devised a menu as part of her assignment for the student-run restaurant, which is supervised by the Hall County School System.

The Bistro at the Oaks Executive Chef Chris Mitas said he wanted to give the students a more hands-on experience.

“In the past, it’s been ‘OK guys, we’re going to do chicken this week and here’s how we do it,’” Mitas said. “But I give them guidelines like ‘We have to do something with pork.’”

Students are expected to develop a four-course tasting menu reflecting the week’s lesson or using seasonal ingredients. They’re also tasked with ordering produce, staying on a budget and making prep lists — basically, everything a manager would do in a restaurant, Mitas said.

Mitas said the focus in the spring semester — his “favorite season to cook in” — is in using seasonal fare.

“We do everything as much as seasonally possible as we can,” Mitas said. “It’s cost-efficient for us and it’s better quality for the guests at that point, too.”

Castaneda’s menu exemplified the point, along with her desire to present a colorful plate. She used loads of fresh vegetables such as radishes, beets, carrots, asparagus and cucumbers.

The four-course tasting menu began with a small plate of spinach and artichoke spread on whole wheat bread with breaded eggplant. It was followed with a spring vegetable salad of cucumber, watermelon radishes, carrots and a lemon vinaigrette. The main dish consisted of chicken thighs, radishes, beets and asparagus served over barley. A small dessert of chocolate ganache cake with strawberry puree and cream completed the meal.

Castaneda said she intends to pursue a career in the culinary arts after she graduates.

“I like to be creative,” Castaneda said. “I can show off my creativity with this.”

The Bistro at the Oaks offers lunch from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays during the school year for $8.

Students will complete a final project May 1 and 2. It will feature a tapas tasting menu with five courses, each representing a region of the world.

Reservations may be made to the prepaid event by emailing or calling 770-532-3161.

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