By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
Chef Dannie Cooper has high standards. He likes his paella proteins cubed just right, and his asparagus perfectly al dente. His palate for Latin American cuisine has been honed by extensive travel in the region, and he knows his plantains from his yucca.
And for one night only, area food enthusiasts can sample his creations - not at any commercial kitchen, however, but at the student-run Patio Café at Central Texas College.
Cooper's menu, Latino Fusion De Licias, will open the college's biweekly culinary arts program series tonight at the Student Center.
The series is run primarily by the school's intermediate cooking class, and will feature a different cuisine and concept nearly every other Friday until December.
Students rotate roles, from executive chef to dishwasher, as they open each new "restaurant," learning all aspects of the business.
Panamanian native Dannie Cooper, 36, is the executive chef for tonight's featured restaurant, De Licias.
The menu includes such items as stuffed plantain cups with ground beef in tomato sofrito, Latino shrimp soup, shredded pork, beef kabobs and paella.
"I love all Latin American cuisine," said Cooper, who hopes to one day work as a chef in Panama. "Everything (on the menu) is pretty much all traditional with a modern twist to it."
Desserts, including mango tartlets, will also be offered.
New tonight to the Patio Café, which has been running for six years, are cocktails.
Although virgin, said Cooper, a piña colada, mai tai or sex on the beach will round out the meal.
"Latin American cuisine is about the drinks as well," he said.
In class Wednesday, students practiced preparing Friday's menu.
Alethea Pickney, 21, prepared broccoli and roasted asparagus side dishes.
"I'm excited and nervous because it'll be our first Patio Café," she said, smiling from under her white hat. "I hope it goes well."
Across the kitchen, Missouri native Leonard McIntosh calmly cubed chicken and shrimp for the paella entree.
"With all these flavors put together," he said, "it's a delicious dish."
Cooper circulated, answering questions and directing movement under the watchful eye of his instructor, Ramona Lezo.
The Patio Café is an invaluable educational opportunity for students, Lezo said, especially those looking to work in restaurants or open small businesses after earning their two-year degrees.
"It gives them the real experience of what it takes to run a restaurant," she said, "not just cooking, not just paperwork, but both."
"Supervising is a big part of it, too," she added.
For Cooper, that duty ends tonight.
"Next week I'll be washing dishes," he said, laughing.
The Patio Café series runs tonight, Oct. 8, Oct. 22, Nov. 5, Nov. 19 and Dec. 10.
Entrees run about $9 each, not including side dishes.
Service begins at 6 p.m. and ends at 7:30 p.m. Reservations for tonight are required by calling (254) 526-1515 by noon today.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.