For several months, the Oak Room on the campus of Mitchell Technical College sat eerily quiet.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which upended nearly every portion of life beginning in late 2019, did its fair share of damage to the United States economy. Among the most affected portions of the business world, the food service industry was particularly hard hit, with restaurant locations shuttering their dining rooms and moving to a takeout based model to keep public gatherings small.

Now students and instructors at the two-year technical college are seeing those groups streaming in to once again sample the dishes at the only culinary school in South Dakota to be certified by the American Culinary Federation. And they are happy to see them again.

“With groups now being able to come back onto campus, we’re very happy to be open to the public again,” said Tim Goldammer, a chef instructor at Mitchell Technical College who oversees the Oak Room and its students.

A balsamic wrap consisting of grilled chicken breast, bacon, a cheese blend, fresh lettuce, red onion and a balsamic reduction recently was a featured item on the menu at the Oak Room on the campus of Mitchell Technical College. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
A balsamic wrap consisting of grilled chicken breast, bacon, a cheese blend, fresh lettuce, red onion and a balsamic reduction recently was a featured item on the menu at the Oak Room on the campus of Mitchell Technical College. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

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Goldammer said like most of the restaurant industry, though often open to public dining, the Oak Room moved to a primarily take-out model during the heaviest days of COVID-19 for many of the same reasons as their non-academic colleagues. With large gatherings in small spaces strongly discouraged, the intimacy of the Oak Room became a liability until case numbers for the deadly respiratory disease dropped.

It was a change for everybody, including the instructors and students in the program, for whom the interaction with live customers is an essential part of the learning and teaching experience.

“Like most of the restaurant industry, we went heavily to-go. Typically the Oak Room is open to the public, and we do a lot of larger group business meetings as well as some private smaller dining,” Goldammer said.

The Oak Room, located in the school Campus Center building, often hosts a variety of groups for lunch engagements. These groups can range in size from two to 40 people, and the space is often booked by businesses that want to hold a formal lunch or just as a treat from management to its employees. It’s a unique dining experience that is not available just anywhere, Goldammer said.

The fact that open dining has returned is also of great benefit to the students in the program who rely on the interactive experiences with diners to help develop their people management skills. Having groups of various sizes come in for lunch can also help students learn how to maintain the quality of their work despite the size of the room.

Jonathon Flying Horse, of Madison, prepares bread at the Oak Room kitchen on the campus of Mitchell Technical College. Live dining has returned to the academic and fine dining outlet after COVID-19 forced the program to a primarily take-out model last year. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
Jonathon Flying Horse, of Madison, prepares bread at the Oak Room kitchen on the campus of Mitchell Technical College. Live dining has returned to the academic and fine dining outlet after COVID-19 forced the program to a primarily take-out model last year. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

“We try to prepare our students for meals as small as small as two and up to 2,000. You should execute to the same level no matter how many guests you’re serving. So it’s good to get that. That’s what our advisory board wants to see coming out as they graduate and go into the industry. They want that same level of execution no matter how many people they’re serving.”

Goldammer said the culinary program at Mitchell Technical College focuses on learning all parts of the kitchen, from grill work to salad preparation, whereas many culinary schools will focus on one specific discipline, such as baking. The well-roundedness of Mitchell Tech graduates makes them appealing for employers who are looking for versatile kitchen and dining room help, especially in an era where the food service industry is likely to be in a hiring frenzy as people overcome their hesitancy of dining out.

The return of diners will cause an increase in demand for workers, Goldammer said.

“Nobody traveled or did anything (last year), so it created this huge shortage in the restaurant industry, and I don’t think nationwide that the bounce back has happened yet,” Goldammer said. “Every restaurant in town is hiring, and our students are getting offers from all over the state to try to get them to come out there. I think that is something that for the next five years will continue to grow as people are looking for that person that has the culinary knowledge and from day one can hit the ground running wherever they are put in the kitchen.”

Other schools are now considering that instruction model as well, with students from Mitchell Technical College constantly being in demand for positions around the state. That also means that interest in the program from potential future students is strong, as well. The program currently sports 24 students and more are always approaching the school with questions and curiosity.

Culinary students Dylan Peters and Mark Williams, both of Mitchell, make preparations recently in the kitchen at Mitchell Technical College. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
Culinary students Dylan Peters and Mark Williams, both of Mitchell, make preparations recently in the kitchen at Mitchell Technical College. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

“I would say culinary is one of our busier toured programs,” said Jenna Reis, admissions director for Mitchell Technical College. “We do get a lot of regional interest, and we get a pretty diverse class. We’re pretty lucky to have a culinary school here - we’re the only culinary school in South Dakota accredited through the American Culinary Federation, so it’s a great program at a great price. Students don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a good culinary degree and then go out and get a good job.”

The public likes dining at the Oak Room, and students and instructors enjoy having those guests in the room. It’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship, Goldammer said, and one from which everybody benefits, Goldammer said. More information on dining options at the Oak Room can be found on the Mitchell Technical College website or by sending an email to oakroom@mitchelltech.edu, Goldammer said.

“We love having them out here,” Goldammer said.