If you’ve driven up Meridian Street lately and wondered about the construction at the once-dingy hotel north of 28th Street, you are in for a tasty surprise. For the past 18 months, with the help of grants by the Lilly Endowment and other entities, Ivy Tech Community College has been quietly, furiously revamping the former Stouffer’s hotel, recently a Christian ministry, and relocating its culinary school classrooms to the 13-story, 196,000-square-foot high rise, now with nine culinary labs, state-of-the-art fixtures, and the potential to accommodate 1,500 budding student chefs. Just as exciting as the impact these students will have on the local restaurant and banquet scene is the opening, at the recent start of the new semester, of Courses (2820 N. Meridian St.), the culinary school’s 140-seat restaurant.
The opening is a coup for Hoosier history buffs as well. The North Meridian address links back to a storied history of baked beans and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. The school is built on the property that was once the site of the ornate mansion of Frank Van Camp, the famous bean magnate, who built his stately home in the late 1800s, fitting it with ornate wood carvings and leaded glass windows. It wasn’t until 1965 that the location was converted to a hotel by Stouffer’s, the frozen dinner folks, who were expanding their restaurant and hotel empire around the country. Noting the structural riches of the Van Camp estate, Stouffer’s architects preserved many of the windows and integrated various carved archways into the hotel design. Ivy Tech’s designers have kept these historical details in their new culinary institute, creating a refreshed, pristine facility that yet has links to the past. Sadly, the Institute for Basic Life Principles, the building’s most recent tenant, removed the second-floor swimming pool when it moved into the facility in the late 1980’s, but Ivy Tech has converted the Institute’s spacious auditorium into a stunning multipurpose space with soaring windows that will soon host weddings and receptions. As a hotel, the facility saw its share of celebrities and dignitaries. Dolly Parton and Glen Campbell both purportedly stayed here when performing in town, and it’s believed that it was the last hotel Elvis stayed in while he was offering his infamous last concert at Market Square Arena downtown.
Associate professor and culinary arts instructor chef Thom England has had the joy of ordering many of the latest cooking appliances and gadgets to set the school’s high-tech labs and teaching kitchens apart, including built-in sous vide wells, induction burners, even a Swiss Pacojet, which can blend foods at super-fast speeds at sub-zero temperatures. Just this week, Englad was still jogging about the building, making certain that the right smoker was installed in the right kitchen. In addition to the much larger digs, Ivy Tech's culinary school will be operating as no-waste facility, with extensive composting and machinery for turning waste products into lint. In addition to its labs, the school now houses climate-controlled chocolate work and charcuterie curing rooms, and plans are in the works for herb and vegetable gardens to the west of the building.
Ivy Tech’s culinary program culminates with two hands-on classes where students gain experience that’s as close to restaurant work as possible. Now, that experience is coming at Courses, which is currently serving lunch on Monday and Tuesday and dinner on Wednesday and Thursday. The menu reflects what the students are studying in 8-week courses, currently classic French dishes such as Coquille St. Jacques, salade Nicoise, and steak au poivre, appropriately old school when served up in the clubby dining room of the former Ram’s Gate Restaurant at Stouffer’s, which offers one of the best dining views in town. The restaurant’s bar is set to open soon. A ground-floor bakery counter with coffee and sweets made by the school’s pastry students is opening this week, staffed by bakery management instructor Carrie Schmidt’s students. Schmidt hopes that her students will be offering a hot lunch by the spring semester. Both eateries are open to the public, with plenty of parking in the area. An online reservations system is in the works, but diners can make reservations by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.