Chefs-in-training cooking up a taste of the city's best cuisine

It might be just a taste, but cooking for some of the city's most accomplished chefs is a big event for cooking student  Latonya Black.

Along with about 20 of her classmates at the Washburne Culinary Institute, Latonya, 27, has spent the last several days preparing thousands of tastes for the thousands of people expected to crowd the city's Taste of Chicago food festival, which begins today in Grant Park.

"This is a very big deal, everything has to be accurate," Black said between whacks at the boneless chicken breasts she was slicing for stews and gumbo. "You don't want to overwhelm the people…everything is just a taste."

This year the Taste of Chicago will feature the work of the Washburne students at a nightly "Chef's Table" where the students will prepare and serve 6,000 to 10,000 "tastes" a day from dishes created by some of the city's top chefs.

Some of the chefs are Washburne alumni, including Jimmy Bannos, chef and owner of four locations of Heaven on Seven and Mary Beth Liccioni, co-owner and manager of Les Nomades on Ontario.

The restaurants will take turns hosting the Chef's Table in the festival's Zagat Dining Pavillion. Today through July 6, the students will be serving dishes from Heaven on Seven, Morton's, The Berghoff, Tavern on Rush, Chant, Café Spiaggia, Les Nomades and Art Smith Company. The last two days of the festival will feature dishes from The Parrot Cage, the school's student-run restaurant.

Open since 1937, the school, at 740 W. 63rd Street and part of the City College of Chicago, offers certificate and degree programs in culinary and baking arts.

Dale Trinko, a former Washburne student who now works at the Koda Bistro in Beverly, came back to assist with the preparations for the Chef's Table. He says it take a least 12 to 15 hours of preparation to get ready for the Taste of Chicago. Two shifts of students work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Greg Darden, 36, a Washburn alumnus and executive chef at Chant, says the Taste of Chicago gives chefs the opportunity to expose customers to new things.

"Recipes are not about competition, no secrets," he says. "It's about sharing."

For the Chef's Table event hosted by Cafe Spiaggia, Washburne students are cooking executive chef Tony Mantuano's ravioletto. Mantuano says the dish will be "something you won't forget" with fresh Italian mozzarella cheeses oozing out of the pasta.

The Taste of Chicago runs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. today. The Chef's Table featured restaurant is Heaven on Seven.