It's lunchtime at the Los Angeles African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, a three-weekend festival of arts, music, dance and food, and the air is thick with the smells of barbecued meat and curry. You're pretty hungry. You follow the smells to a food court.
Then you see the long lines, the full, cluttered tables, the all-around chaos of hungry people around tasty food.
But at the end of the food court, you see a large open tent full of tables and a sign that reads, "Culinary Collage Pavilion. Where Fine Dining Meets Hands-On Learning."
My sister and I, native New Yorkers who are constantly trying to find ways to beat the crowd, walk up to the front of the restaurant and are immediately greeted by a friendly host. The pavilion, we discover, is part of the Menu for Success enrichment program, a joint project of Lawry's Foods and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The idea is this: Teach middle school and high school students what it's like to work in the food-service industry by having them host and wait tables.
As we are seated, I noticed a row of about six people sitting behind a long table surveying the scene. Our waitress explains that these are her teachers.
What's their role? "Oh, they're just watching," she says. "We are in charge."
We start to order. "One moment," says our waitress as she spends a moment getting rid of a mouthful of sticky candy. "Would you like some?" she offers. "I've got extra."
"No, thanks." we reply in unison, wondering whether the eyes behind the table had docked her any points.
She redeems herself, however, when she quickly returns with two plates of fried chicken, rice and plantains. We looked pityingly at the lines in front of the various food stands. While those poor suckers were still waiting, we were comfortably eating in the shade.
Wow. Quick, friendly service--two things that don't usually go together at New York restaurants.
* The African Marketplace and Cultural Faire continues weekends through Labor Day. In the upcoming weeks, the students will serve food cooked in the tent by chefs from Uncle Darrow's Cajun/Creole Eatery and Dulan's Restaurant. Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rancho Cienega Park, 5001 Rodeo Road, Los Angeles; (213) 734-1164. $3 admission. Food prices range from $1 to $9.