LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Flavors from around the world filled plates Thursday night at the Polo Grill Fete Ballroom where 200 dinners served as a final exam for University of South Florida Sarasota Manatee students.
The work designing a dinner service and concept in 48 hours culminated in the fourth annual HospitaBull banquet, where 45 College of Hospitality & Technology Leadership students executed a food theme and experience as a final exam. Imagine it as a more polite version of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen restaurant -- a lot less cursing, more smiling faces and a guaranteed meal.
"We want them to make mistakes here. That's perfectly fine. We want them to have burns on here while they're cooking," said Cihan Cobanoglu, dean of the College of Hospitality, pointing to his wrists. "We want them to break a couple of glasses."
The HospitaBull battle scars let students know what to expect in the real world, he said.
"I hope I was going to see the Hell's Kitchen this morning when I went to the Culinary Innovation Lab," Cobanoglu said. "They were just calm. They told me it's because of planning."
The goal for HospitaBull is to fundraise for the college and give students work experience. The event is the culmination of three months and three classes: event management, introduction to foods and restaurant management. All instruction leads to a 48-hour push to execute the banquet with students coming up with the theme, food and even the napkin fold.
"Hospitality is a professional field. It's something that the students have to put the theory in class into practice," Cobanoglu said. "This experience teaches them about timing, about marketing, about presentation of the food, pricing, budgeting."
Money raised will help send students to trade shows in Chicago, New York and around the world for restaurant, hotels and hospitality management, Cobanoglu said. The silent auction included use of luxury sports cars -- a Ferrari and Lamborghini -- with a two-night stay at The Ritz-Carlton.
The students came together for the largest ever HospitaBull to qualify for hospitality management degrees. Sure, some glasses broke and last-minute recipe substitutions were necessary, but that's all part of the experience.
Meaghan Cichowski was part of the dessert team that made Baked Alaska. She wants to go into hotel sales when she graduates after eight years as a server. She said her time on the dessert team prepped her for whatever could go wrong -- her team was missing a couple meringues.
Teammate Megan Clark of St. Petersburg was able to laugh it off. The aspiring pastry chef at Clearwater's William Dean Chocolates recited advice she said helps her in these moments.
"The best thing I was ever told is what makes you good in this industry is how good you can cover up your mistakes because you don't want people to see," Clark said. "It's how good and how good you can fix it."
Brittany Figlow wants to go into event management and has no restaurant experience. She found herself on the hors d'oeuvres team making kabobs, mini burritos and oyster shooters.
"This is all new to me," she said.
Julieah Sinkler, also on the hors d'oeuvres team, said she wants to go into the front-of-the house operations, but had to learn proper cutting techniques during her kitchen training in the hospitality program, which celebrates its 10th year. She works at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota now in the rooms division, and found herself at college learning to substitute ingredients.
"Almost every recipe they have given us all class long they'll not have at least one ingredient, and we have to assess what else we need using our brains," she said.
Students like Figlow and Sinkler are filling roles they normally wouldn't by design, said chef and college instructor Joe Askren. He said he wants to avoid producing students with four-year degrees who get to a hospitality job for the first time and soon leave in frustration.
"It makes good leaders. The leaders that you want to follow, they have experience they want to share with you," Askren said. "If they don't have any experience, how can they be leaders?"
Much of the prep work occurred Tuesday and Wednesday a few steps away from the Polo Grill in the college Culinary Innovation Lab on Lakewood Ranch's Main Street. Clark said the hours involved helps expose her peers to how a long day in the kitchen feels like.
"I've been here since 7. A lot of us came in here at nine o'clock so we're putting in 12-hour days, and that's exactly what you're going to see when you're in this industry, being on your feet," Clark said.
That type of experience also makes a good manager who can see a job is more than about money, Cobanoglu said.
"If they go through this, they'll have a much better understanding of how to motivate their people on staff in the future," Cobanoglu said.
The college also handed out 2013-14 Hospitality Leadership Awards to Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Burton "Skip" Sack, past president of the National Restaurant Association, who snowbirds here and is business partners with Sean Murphy of the restaurant Eat Here.
Sack's experience includes developing the Ground Round restaurants and Red Coach Grills after acquiring the chain from his longtime employer Howard Johnson Co. He also opened one of the first Applebee's in 1986 and left the company in 2007.
The award goes to people in the community who help make the college stronger, said Dennis Stover, regional vice chancellor for advancement.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.