BENTON, Ill. – Rend Lake College culinary arts products Katie Karcher and Troy Ray are putting their training to the test. Their new restaurant, Seasoning Bistro, has provided a fresh take on the local dining experience since opening in August on the square in Benton.
The sidewalk was lined outside Seasoning Bistro during opening week and Ray said things are going nice and steady into the fall. They sat down to talk shop after a recent lunch rush at the restaurant. According to them, variety is the spice of Seasoning Bistro.
One part of the reasoning behind the “Seasoning” in their name is that they simply love to season food. Another is that they change the menu to fit the season. They said newcomers to look for on the menu this fall will be stews, braised meats and pasta dishes. They have also added beer and wine to the menu after obtaining a liquor license earlier this month.
“We’ll be turning to more stick-to-your-ribs food,” he said of the fall menu. “You’ll come in cold and go out warm.”
Seasoning Bistro’s niche is home-cooked, hearty food at an affordable price. And no matter what’s on the menu, patrons can eat assured that it’s fresh.
“We want to make sure our food is fresh and nutritional so people can come in day in and day out and feel good about what they eat here,” Karcher explained.
“We don’t use any canned food,” Ray added. “Everything is cooked to order. Nothing is sitting there, leaching out all of its nutrients.”
Neither had ever done anything like this – that is, the business owner side of things. Ray, a Herrin native, is 27 and Dalghren’s Karcher is just 23. But as they dove in head first with co-owner JoAnn Dempsey – a twin like Karcher and her sister, Maggie – they relied on Dempsey’s experience and their education at RLC.
Ray started in the restaurant business by getting a work permit at 15 and helping Dempsey, his mother, at the Marion Holiday Inn where she was food and beverage director for more than a decade. Since then, Ray has worked an array of jobs at many restaurants in the region. Before Seasoning Bistro, he ran a catering business with his mom while working as a chef at Walker’s Bluff in Carterville.
Karcher started cooking as a pre-teen and got serious about becoming a chef while in high school. She enrolled in the culinary arts program at Rend Lake right out of Hamilton County Senior High School and had her degree from RLC two years later. She worked in small and large kitchens on her way to pastry chef at Walker’s Bluff before resigning to open the bistro.
While the training in culinary arts at RLC didn’t equip them with electrical, plumbing and other construction know-how needed to remodel a building into their business, it did build their expertise in the kitchen. And it taught them how to clean!
“That’s definitely one thing we learned from school – the cleaner your kitchen is, the more efficient you are going to be, the better you are going to look and the better you are going to feel when you come in,” she said. Seasoning Bistro has performed excellent on health inspections.
“That’s one thing I like ... no dispute that we are a clean place,” said Ray.
“We have really put a lot into this place. It’s our home now,” she added.
They had some help getting their new home ready. He said family and friends all pitched in.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
And they couldn’t have done it without their education at RLC, they said. From culinary math to computer skills, they said RLC’s degree program prepared them for the challenges they are facing as business owners.
“Not only did it teach us cooking – we had a lot of cooking classes – but we learned management as well,” she said. “And that was the degree path. If you went for just the certificate, you got just the cooking. But the degree teaches you beyond the kitchen.”
“It’s culinary management,” he added. “It really does teach you a little bit about everything you need to know to run your own business.”
“That facility is impeccable,” she said of RLC’s culinary arts labs. “It’s so clean and all the equipment works properly. Upstairs ... it’s set up where each person gets a whole station or at least half a station to work on.”
“I loved my experience there,” he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“The biggest thing is that they teach you technique,” she added. “They teach you the basics and you can expand from there. But if you don’t go to school, you don’t learn those basic techniques and you just create shortcuts for things ... bad habits.”
Karcher said her speciality is desserts, while Ray’s forte is saute, grilling and sauces. But don’t take their word for it. Patrons can find out for themselves by visiting Seasoning Bistro at 506 Public Square in Benton. They’re on the web at facebook.com/seasoningonthesquare where specials are frequently announced. Order ahead at 618-439-3003.
For more about the culinary arts program at Rend Lake College, visit online at www.rlc.edu or call 618-437-5321.