Dorri Partain

Tucked inside the hallways of a Kansas City high school, the Cardinal Cafe offers bright, cheery decor along with student-prepared breakfast and lunch options.

As part of the culinary program at Manual Career and Technical Center, 1215 E. Truman Rd., any junior or senior student enrolled in Kansas City Public Schools can apply to participate.

The cafe had a grand re-opening on March 16, after being closed to the public for two years following the Covid-19 pandemic; it had closed after a brief run in 2020, operating only a few weeks before pandemic shutdowns.

After the long shutdown, Chef Tom Belisle and Chef Dan Hogan were eager to give their students the chance for more hands-on skills, which include not just preparing foods but also learning how to operate a business. The cafe is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays while school is in session, which gives students a chance to prepare and bake on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Known as “Chef Tom” to his students, Belisle starts his students at the beginning of the school year learning about sanitation and food safety, which prepares them to acquire their food handlers license from the City’s Health Department. Next, they spend class time learning knife skills to properly cut and chop fruits and vegetables.

A whole week is spent on chicken fabrication, learning how to cut up a whole chicken. Belisle notes that the task is sometimes met with hesitation, but by the end of the year, his students can do it quickly and efficiently. Next, the students learn how to create the five “mother sauces” as the focus is cooking from fresh ingredients for best taste and nutritional value.

Now that the cafe has re-opened, Belisle’s students focus on the “hot foods” while Chef Dan’s students prepare the baked goods. Class starts with a meeting discussing the day’s tasks, then students don their chef coats and hairnets. Once sanitation is set up, they begin preparing salads, fruit cups, sandwiches, and the soup of the day. Students work in teams, which imparts the necessity of communication.

“Working in food service, communication is as important as the technical skills,” Belisle explained. “They have to learn to be around other people, and the job isn’t done until everyone is finished. It’s an easy class, if they just do their part every day.”

Keeping the cafe running while students attend other classes, “Miss Kathy” Cocoran works the front counter as the cafe’s manager. She also teaches students how to handle the task, taking orders and operating the cash register, and packing items to-go. The cafe also offers several tables and couches for those who have time to eat inside the cafe.

The cafe offers fresh-brewed coffee, hot or cold tea, juice and soft drinks. A view of the classroom kitchen is visible from the cafe’s counter.

“The kitchen rivals any I’ve seen in the industry,“ Cocoran remarked.

Proceeds from the sale of food and drinks goes back into the culinary program.

Like the students at Manual, Belisle got his start in the food industry as a teenager; at 13 he was washing dishes at a relative’s restaurant. After completing culinary school, he spent 10 years as a dining car chef for Burlington Northern Railroad. He was working in the Childhood Nutrition department for the school district when the position for instructor became available.

“I thought I would just do it until the end of the school year. I didn’t realize how much I loved kids, and to see them understand something – it just doesn’t get any better,” he said.

Belisle has been an instructor at Manual for five years and expects he’ll be there until retirement; for him, it has turned out to be the perfect job.

“It’s really about them (the students), not me,” Belisle said. “Even if they decide not to work in the food industry, cooking for others is a life skill.”

The cafe’s menu also gives the students a chance to sample a variety of foods that they may not be familiar with.

Belisle tells them to “taste everything you make, don’t be shy.” Food items not sold by the time the cafe closes on Thursday afternoon can be taken home by the students, which also gives them a chance to share what they’re learning at school with family at home. The culinary students also have a chance to select items before class to ensure they don’t start class time being hungry.

Another lesson Belisle likes to impart is that food doesn’t always have to be fast or only available frozen. Recently, the class learned to recreate Big Mac burgers, during another class they made french fries from fresh potatoes.

Besides teaching the culinary students restaurant-level skills, the Cardinal Cafe also fills the gap for Manual students and staff, as well as district employees. With most students coming in from other district high schools, Manual doesn’t have a regular cafeteria. Along with being a place to mingle with other staff or students between classes, many are eager to stop in and grab a favorite baked treat or sandwich.

“It helps build relationships,” remarked Belisle. “Not just for the staff and students, but across the campus (which has multiple buildings). I see students come in with parents or grandparents, and they have lunch together.”

While the cafe is open to everyone, it’s not necessarily easy to access. Any visitor to the school has to go through the school’s security station and show identification.

“That could be a deterrent,” said Crystal Everett, Career and Technical Education Manager at Manual. “But we hope the public will make the effort and support our students in this program.”

In addition to preparing items for the cafe, the culinary students also provide catering. One popular dish available is Chicken Parmesan, with a side of pasta, a salad and dessert.

With the school year winding down, Belisle isn’t sure how much longer the cafe will be open, as half his students are graduating in May. The cafe will reopen next school year, after new students have a chance to learn enough to obtain their food handler’s license. For now, the cafe is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For the soup of the day and other daily offerings, follow on Twitter @KCPS_ManualCTE. To inquire about catering, call the school office at 816-418-5318.