ENGLEWOOD — For Cliff Kelley, the longtime radio personality on WVON-AM, a grilled Cobb salad was proof to him that Washburne Culinary Institute students are going to be just fine when they graduate.
"I have been here before and try to come as much as I can, because it's important to support students," Kelley said as he ate at the institute’s Sikia restaurant in Englewood during a community preview Friday.
"The food was simply marvelous and the service was on point. I think these kids are going to make great strides once they graduate."
About 30 people attended Community Day at the restaurant, 740 W. 63rd St., where patrons were served a free appetizer, lunch and desert, a meal that normally sells for $7. Once the restaurant opens on Wednesday, lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays. The restaurant closes when Kennedy-King College is on winter and summer break.
Washburne is part of Kennedy-King, and gives students like 30-year-old Portage Park resident Larry Etcitty real-world experience by having them run Sikia.
"I have always wanted to be a cook ever since I was a little boy. Instead of watching cartoons I would watch cooking shows on Channel 11," recalled the father of two daughters. "My grandparents were good cooks. That's how I got interested in cooking. After I graduate [in May] I want to get some experience as an executive chef and then open my own restaurant."
Not everyone in attendance was a regular customer like Kelley. Tina Brown said she traveled from Pullman to attend the event.
"I had always heard about Sikia but never had a chance to come inside until today," Brown said. "I am glad I came because the food and service was quite appealing."
And Janet Vaughn, who said she grew up in Englewood, was glad to see so many people at the restaurant.
"People seem to think everything in Englewood is bad and that's not true. This restaurant proves that there are good things in Englewood worth talking about," Vaughn said. "I just hope more people come out to support the restaurant because it is truly a hidden gem in the community."
When Whole Foods Market opens across the street in 2016, CEO Walter Robb said he plans to create internship opportunities for Washburne students.
"They are a part of this community and we want to engage the community as much as possible," Robb said.
And that's fine with Arshele Stevens, interim president of Kennedy-King College.
"I love the fact that businesses want to get our students involved. In the short time I have been at Kennedy-King I have quickly learned that Sikia and all our students have made a positive impact in the community," she said.
Washburne students also run the Parrot Cage at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive, where lunch is available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, dinner from 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The school plans to launch a third restaurant Downtown in late October. The Washburne Cafe, 226 W. Jackson Blvd., will serve breakfast and lunch five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m, according to Angela O'Connor, a spokeswoman for Kennedy-King College.
"The students are excited about the Wabash Cafe. It gives them a chance to serve a unique clientele and larger group of people," O'Connor said. "And we're confident the new restaurant will do fine."