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Northwest Florida State College finds recipe for success with Seagrass restaurant

Devon Ravine
Northwest Florida Daily News

NICEVILLE — A little-known restaurant is beginning to make a name for itself.

Seagrass, a pop-up restaurant on the campus of Northwest Florida State College, opened in the fall of 2019. The restaurant is run by students and faculty of the school’s Culinary Management and Hospitality and Tourism Management programs.

Seagrass uses the school’s Raider Café, but transforms the dining room with white table linens, glass and silverware and waiter service for each event. During fall semesters, students prepare and serve a three-course French-inspired lunch menu every Thursday. In the spring, Seagrass becomes a dinner venue, with a series of six fine-dining events during the course of the semester that highlight a different genre of cooking. 

Northwest Florida State College student Jessica Battle pours wine for diners Bill Head and Katy Doheny during a recent Seagrass restaurant dinner at the college in Niceville.

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This spring’s series of dinners include such dishes as fresh snapper served in parchment paper, grilled lamb chops with rosemary, Cajun stuffed chicken breast and traditional Brazilian churrasco-style grilled beef. All of it is planned, prepared and served by culinary students.

Seagrass is the brainchild of Chef Layne Eggers, associate professor of culinary management at the college. Eggers authored the plan for Seagrass and is a firm believer in incorporating a real-world restaurant into the school’s curriculum.

“Students learn by doing,” he said. “We need to put them in a live environment so that they can learn the fast-paced nature of this business, and having a restaurant is the best way to do that.”

Thursday night's meal at Seagrass restaurant included a bibb lettuce salad with champagne vinaigrette dressing, spiced pecans, egg and goat's milk cheese. The hydroponically grown bibb and many of the herbs used at the restaurant come from the college's recently opened Kay Litke Culinary Arts Greenhouse.

That fast-paced environment was on display Thursday evening as Seagrass hosted the first of its six dinners.

Dressed in an immaculate white chef’s jacket, second-year culinary student Shawni Jones worked with equal parts precision and speed in the kitchen as she and other students meticulously prepared small escargot tarts to be served to the 70 diners outside.

Jones, who retired from the military before deciding to turn a passion for cooking into a second career, said the real-world setting is a good learning environment.

Diners share a toast at Seagrass restaurant at Northwest Florida State College.

“It definitely pushes your limits,” she said. “Doing everything hands on brings everything into reality.”

Under the supervision of faculty, students learn everything from budgeting and recipe development to international and regional cooking techniques, and the all-important restaurant skill of preparing meals to a specific timeline. Students also learn proper wine presentation and protocol at the table, and how to communicate professionally with guests and co-workers.

Those skills are in high demand in the local restaurant and tourism economy, according to Julie Cotton, director of the college’s Culinary Management and Hospitality and Tourism Management programs.

“As they (students) become more acclimated to the fast-paced nature of our business in a live setting, they will better adapt and be productive to their future employer starting day one,” Cotton said.

Chef Layne Eggers, associate professor of culinary management at Northwest Florida State College, visits with some diners during a recent dinner at Seagrass restaurant.

She said graduates of the program have parlayed their skills into jobs at local businesses such as Fudpucker's Beachside Bar and Grill, Henderson Beach Resort, Emerald Grande and the Sandestin Hilton.

It seems to be a recipe for success. Reservations for all six of this spring’s dinner events at the college were booked the day they were released.

Dinners are $20 per person or $28 with a wine flight.

Among those enjoying Thursday night’s meal was Niceville resident Bill Head, who has become a regular at the Seagrass events. Head said he’s attended at least a half-dozen of the lunches and dinners.

“The food is exceptional,” said Head. “And Layne (Eggers) has done a good job with the students. They’re really focused on customer service.”

For more information on Seagrass and NWF State's Culinary Management program, visit www.nwfsc.edu/academics/degrees-offered/culinary/.