From left: HTM students Chris Owens, Lauren Harvey and Abir Sarker at work in PJ’s kitchen.

You’ve heard restaurants bragging that they change their menus four times a year to reflect the shifting seasons. Chef Simon Day, a lecturer in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, says that’s nothing.

At PJ’s we have a different theme and a different menu every day. We’re going to be running 40 different restaurants this semester.”

When PJ’s started eight years ago, it was only open two or three days a week for lunch. But now this student-run restaurant is open for lunch Monday to Friday; in the winter semester it will also be open Thursday evenings to offer fine dining meals. The added days reflect increasing numbers of students enrolled in the restaurant program.

“At heart, this is a management course, so students tackle all aspects of running a restaurant,” explains Day. For each luncheon session, the students create a theme, design entrees and decor to fit, order ingredients, prepare the food and serve it to their guests.

“It’s like Iron Chef meets Survivor meets The Amazing Race.”

Maybe he’s exaggerating a little. The spotlessly clean kitchen may be busy, but the students chopping onions and mixing biscuit dough seem calm. Day, who is a fully-qualified chef, says he’s not the Gordon Ramsey type: no red-in-the-face yelling sessions go on here. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have high expectations, though.

He expects his students to keep up with current food trends, for example. Since many Guelphites are vegetarian, most menus are planned to include at least one or two vegetarian items. Students also make a point of shopping locally as much as possible, buying fruit and vegetables in season, using organic foods when practical and buying sustainable fish. “You won’t see asparagus on the menu in November,” says Day.

Another expectation: keeping up with technology. PJ’s uses the Open Table system to take reservations, a system that’s used in 173 Toronto restaurants and is also popular in places like Las Vegas. Hungry diners simply go to the website where they can check out the menus for the dates they’re interested in. Then a click on “reservations” brings them to the Open Table site to register and book a table at PJ’s.

“We can hold 90 people for each meal, and we like the restaurant to be full,” he says. “For the students, this is like their final exam; it’s a big deal. The prices are very reasonable and affordable, usually between $6.50 and $9 for an entree.” You’ll even be encouraged to come and tour the kitchen, where you’ll notice all the students wearing their white chef’s jackets ─ another point of professionalism Day insists on.

This year, thanks to the restaurant’s growth, he’s hired two students who graduated from the program last year to help oversee the kitchen. Sarah Hussey worked in the Okanagan region of British Columbia this summer, and Sasha Saladziak is back after working in the Toronto restaurant Jump all summer. They help the teams of students who are running each restaurant make sure they hit the mark.

Back in the kitchen, Day shows off a couple of his secrets. One student is chopping fresh herbs, and Day explains that he learned this trick during his chef years: “I keep a tub of chopped thyme, rosemary, oregano and sage in the freezer, and that’s my secret back-pocket ingredient. Whenever a sauce or a stock is too bland, I just toss in a handful of those herbs, and that wakes the food right up.”

On another table, a student is shredding meat from a pork roast that Day explains has been slow-cooked for 24 hours. “That’s pulled pork. We mix it with barbecue sauce, root beer, cilantro, red onion and pepper, and it makes one of our most popular sandwiches,” he says.

For the fine dining meals, which cost under $40 per person, all the food is made from scratch, including bread and pasta. For the lunch menu, pasta and bread are purchased, but everything else is made in that big, clean kitchen: ice cream, mayonnaise, dressings for salads, beef stock (which starts with beef bones roasting the oven) and sauces.

“This is not really a culinary course, but I think knowing how these things should be made is part of running a restaurant,” says Day. “If they pick up some cooking skills along the way, that’s a bonus.”

The restaurant’s almost-sold-out soft opening runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6; all meals will be half price during that week.

Restaurant themes for the rest of October include The Cave, featuring Brontosaurus Bruschetta and Layers of the Earth Lasagna, and Joe, a menu that takes a breakfast-for-lunch approach and offers traditional eggs Benedict with home fries and Thai iced coffee.

And there’s no lining up or carrying your food around on a tray. This is a full-service restaurant, with students taking your order and serving your food, and a student manager dropping by to check on whether everything was good.

“Come out and give us a try,” says Day. “We have a good product, and I’ll bet you’ll be coming back for more.”