As after-school learning programs go, this one was pretty delicious. A dozen St. Paul high school students got a hands-on glimpse into the career possibilities in the creatively, intellectually and physically challenging world of the culinary arts, thanks to Stage (pronounced staaah-jh), the brainchild of Minneapolis artist and educator Mark Rivard, Saint Dinette general manager Laurel Elm and Octo Fishbar chef Shane Oporto.

"It's fun to see students have that light bulb moment, where they realize that something has career potential," said Rivard. "I strongly favor experiential learning. This is what education should look like."

On 15 consecutive Monday afternoons — when Saint Dinette is closed for the day — the students would take a five-minute walk from their Creative Arts Secondary School to the restaurant, then become immersed in the intricacies of the kitchen and dining room, guided by an all-volunteer cadre of chefs, bakers, managers and other industry professionals.

The training was intense, and varied, ranging from recipe development and practical cooking tips ("I learned how to debone a chicken," said student Makayla Cheer. "That was really cool.") to crafting a budget, properly setting and clearing a table and throwing a mini-"Iron Chef" competition with foraged mushrooms. No detail was deemed mundane, right down to Dishwasher 101. The audience? Rapt.

"They made an amazing commitment," said Elm. "They even wanted to show up on a snow day. That's something I've never heard of before."

There were field trips out of the restaurant, too, convening on a Saturday morning to shop at the St. Paul Farmers Market, then spending the following Monday in a local-seasonal ingredients tutorial that ended with them cooking — and eating — their purchases.

"Everyone was so welcoming," said student Robyn Nelson. "Nobody expected you to have prior knowledge, or to have any kitchen experience. Everyone was so patient. I'm so glad that I got to be a part of it."

Six amazing courses

The program, supported by donations, culminated with a late May dinner, a packed house at Saint Dinette, where diners shelled out $75 a person for a six-course experience that was conceived and prepared by the students.

Looking spiffy in their customized aprons, the student crew was split into three groups of four, each team responsible for preparing two courses and then serving or expediting the others.

The amuse-bouche — delicate, bacon-enhanced churros with a tangy pineapple glaze — immediately signaled that a globehopping, expectations-stretching culinary adventure was in the works.

The first course proved to be an ingenious showstopper. Described as a "deconstructed veggie pizza," it incorporated fried rice-paper, a trendy vegetable ash and a salad of early spring greens tossed in a lemon vinaigrette.

Next up: pho, a rabbit bone-based broth garnished with a rabbit sausage-stuffed dumpling.

The evening then traded Vietnam for the Caribbean, with a jerk-seasoned quail that was smoked and grilled until the skin, perfumed with allspice, was crisp and blackened, with lightly smoked Thumbelina carrots acting as a sharp color contrast.

"Oohs" and "aahs" resonated throughout the dining room at the appearance of the main course, a whole roasted arctic char, delivered on platters heaped with broccolini, watermelon radishes and bok choy.

"It's an awesome cross-cultural dish," said student Mai Thao to the jam-packed dining room, explaining that the family-style course was a reflection of the "family" meal that the students shared during each class.

Dessert was pound cake topped with a strawberry-rhubarb compote and burnt honey ice cream.

There was, of course, a surprise ending, in the form of profit-sharing.

"We wanted our students to understand that you can be part of an artistic community and make it economically viable," said Rivard. "That's why we told them that selling 'X' amount of tickets would create a profit. And, well, we sold out."

Each student was handed an envelope. Elation pretty much describes the feeling that hung in the air.

"I think we got there at 11 in the morning and left at 11 at night, so it was a really long day," said Nelson. "So getting a hundred dollars was pretty great."

From there, speeches. Rivard was full of thanks for all of the connections created by the Stage program.

"So many people took on this project," he said. "We played restaurant every Monday in this facility, rent-free, and everyone here made an amazing commitment to mentor kids on their day off. You're investing in these kids."

Like Oporto ("There are feelings here," he said), Elm began with an admission.

"I think I'm tearing up," she said. "Mark and I had this crazy idea, but the students made it what it was. I'm super, super proud, and I'm probably crazy enough to do it again."

Fittingly, the school's principal, Carlondrea Hines, had the last word.

"Everyone's holding back tears because my vision of building a community in our school means that students can bring who they are as a person into everything they do," she said. "That builds a stronger St. Paul. These babies — my babies — are our future."

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib