It's taken more than 18 months to get up and running but Jean Alberti is pleased to say The Seasons, the training restaurant he set up, is finally open to the public.
Located on the campus of the Macau University of Science and Technology, across from City of Dreams, it's an expansive 10,000 sq ft space. Wooden floors and walls give it the atmosphere of a barn, in keeping with the restaurant's bucolic theme.
The training restaurant, of which Alberti, 56, is managing director, helps the students complete the 500 hours of practicum necessary for them to complete their bachelor degrees in food and beverage management.
There's rising demand for such trainees. With casinos in their second phase of expansion along the Cotai Strip, about 15,000 new staff will be needed in the next three years.
The concept behind The Seasons is farm-to-table dining, which means seasonal ingredients are used to create a menu which changes daily.
There is a small organic plot about a 10-minute walk from the restaurant where vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers are grown for use as ingredients.
The students learn the importance of growing and eating organic food by maintaining the garden, a philosophy that Alberti has followed for decades as a chef.
Originally from Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, Alberti was born into a family of restaurateurs. He apprenticed at two restaurants with Michelin star status, La Bourgogne and La Charrue d'Or, and then moved to Los Angeles to work at the Tower Bar and Restaurant at the Sunset Tower Hotel.
He did a stint in Antigua, in the Caribbean, before returning to California in the late 1990s. A year spent travelling in Greece inspired him to create his own interpretation of the country's cuisine, and he opened two restaurants in San Francisco, Kokkari Estiatorio and Evvia Estiatorio, which used organic ingredients from local farmers.
"The farmers would tell me what they had in season, and I would create my menu around that. You don't get tomatoes at this time of year so why use them now?" he says.
"We want the students to understand that food doesn't come from a big warehouse, but from farmers, and that they should respect the seasons."
The Seasons serves set lunches and dinners with a choice of two appetisers, entrees and desserts. On a recent trip, lunch featured plump poached mussels in a saffron-based soup, followed by snails and diced ham baked inside a pastry-lined ceramic box. There was wagyu beef topped with foie gras and soba noodles on the side. A slice of cheesecake with blueberry sauce finished the meal.
Wine aficionados will be pleased to discover the restaurant mostly sources directly from small boutique wineries, and a professional barista teaches students how to make lattes, cappuccinos and espressos.
Macau is also home to Educational Restaurant at the Institute for Tourism Studies at IFT. This emphasises Macanese cuisine and Portuguese wines, and is highly regarded for the quality of its dishes.
Alberti says the Educational Restaurant and The Seasons complement each other, and that both are needed in the booming city. "Macau has developed so much in food and beverage that it needs cooking schools and places to train locals in cooking," he says.
Professor Michael Hitchcock, dean of the faculty of hospitality and tourism management at the university, says casinos and hotels in Macau are keen on The Seasons' concept.
"They are interested in what we are doing. They need skilled personnel, so we're doing our best to recruit high quality teachers to expand our programme. We want to show we are not just churning out graduates," he says.
Most of the students are from the mainland and Alberti says they usually have plans to further their studies abroad. "They are very ambitious and I've told hospitality students in France that they better watch out because the Chinese are coming to take their spots from them in the hospitality programmes."
Alberti was approached to open the training restaurant about 18 months ago by the university. Fortunately, this aligned with his plan to set up a dining establishment in Macau.
"The university realised it needed to open a training restaurant to give more depth to its degree programme. So far, people who come into The Seasons are impressed because they are expecting a dining area that looks like a cafeteria," Alberti says with a chuckle.
There are 17 interns working in the restaurant, in the kitchen and front of house. September will see the arrival of 120 more students. Besides pratical training, Alberti will run seminars and workshops on wine, coffee and tea, but these aren't all for students; anyone interested can sign up.
The affable Frenchman has a strong interest in tea. He learned a lot about Chinese tea during his time in Palo Alto, California.
"I befriended the owner of a tea shop near my restaurant, an elderly Chinese man. He taught me a lot about Chinese teas and that's how I discovered how complex they are. We would also talk about food, and try to pair it with wines and teas," he says.
In 2008 Alberti started going to remote tea-growing areas in China to source tea himself. "The method of growing teas hasn't changed for several hundred years. But organic teas are harder to grow, and so the yields can be half of those using pesticides," he says.
Meeting the people who grow the teas is his way of supporting organic farmers, he adds. "By buying their produce we are encouraging them to keep going."