Thursday, May 10, 2012
SAN DIEGO Chef Ricardo Heredia of South Park’s Alchemy always starts his classes with the fourth and fifth graders at McKinley Elementary with the same question.
Healthy eating and obesity prevention programs are popping up in schools all over the country. One San Diego chef wants to reconnect students with not only the basics of healthy eating, but the fun of cooking and sharing a meal with friend and family.
"Who can tell me what 'mise en place' means? Who remembers?'
He ignores the kids shouting out answers and points to a boy with his hand raised, "Nathan?"
"Everything in its place," Nathan says.
And everything is in its place. Normally cooking classes take place in the school’s kitchen. But today, Heredia and Alchemy owner Ron Troyado have rolled grills into the school’s garden for a pizza making class.
After picking a few toppings from the garden beds to add to their pizzas, Heredia’s students circle up to learn the basics of pizza dough making. These kids are not happy to just sit back and watch how things are done
When Heredia asks them to punch the rising dough down many fists assail the large mound.
"Ok, not literally," Heredia says, "let's just push it down."
But the chef has a few more things on his mind when he plans his classes than students getting their hands dirty.
“What I want kids to get out of it is, A, basic knowledge of where your food comes from, why it’s healthy, why farmers are important," he says. "How to use a knife properly and to cook with their family. I think that’s something that us, as Americans, we’re losing. Every decade we’re losing more and more or families that actually sit down, cook together.”
Heredia and Alchemy owner Ron Troyado have been running eight-week classes for students from Albert Einstein Academy Charter School for three years. This is the first class they’ve offered at McKinley. Troyado says they hope the growing program can serve as a model for other restaurants that want to reach out to their local schools
“We’ve developed a curriculum, we have it mapped out. Along with the cooking there’s a field trip and then the education aspect of it relates to the gardens that they have going," she says. "San Diego Unified and the other districts in the county are working hard to develop the whole system around healthy eating, so we feel like we’re part of that.”
Parents paid $35 for eight after-school classes and for the chef jackets and hats the young cooks get. Some costs are covered by the school and all of the adults involved donate their time – any additional costs are absorbed by the restaurant – an arrangement Troyado is hoping to change with grant funding eventually.
The students though are more interested in cooking than how the classes came to their campus.
“Like, my mom used to get mad at me because I used to try to do things in the kitchen and my mom would be like, ‘no, go away, let me cook,’" says fifth grader Maliyah Prince. "And yeah, so, I just wanted to cook by myself so this is the only place I can really do it because my mom gets mad at me, she thinks I’m going to ruin the food.”
The idea that kids aren’t interested in new and different foods doesn’t hold for this group. Fourth grader Alicia Spencer says it's her favorite part.
“Getting to make new foods that I have never made before," she says, recalling a few of the new items she has encountered like "the eggplants, the tortilla, the pizza.”
That curiosity shows up in sophistication about food.
“I have them describe some flavor profiles and it’s amazing – ‘I get a little bitterness from this.’ 'That’s very smooth and buttery.’ So their descriptive terms and just seeing them think on that level is surprising,” Heredia says.
Getting to enjoy the final product keeps the kids engaged, according to faculty advisor Guy DeVoss. But so does seeing the garden where they have science lessons in producing food.
“There’s a big focus in the classes on green in terms of also using things around you and not wasting things and the kids are seeing with the garden that things are going right in to something they can consume and that’s been really exciting for them,” he says.
The students easily make connections between the work they do in the kitchen and their other classes. One example comes up again and again.
“Fractions," says Sam Deckhut, a McKinley fourth grader. "I’ve been learning in class but we kind of did it in the cooking class, too.”
They’re also learning lessons they can’t get sitting in their normal classes.
“I think it makes a connection with work," DeVoss says. "Here we have chef Ricardo and the owner of Alchemy, really good examples of people that work in the neighborhood and have purposeful jobs. And I think it make a good bridge from academics to what you can do with your life.”
In their last class about four weeks from now, the students will make a three-course meal for two friends or family members. While the kids may not all be headed for careers in the kitchen, they’ll know they can plan and carry out a complex project. And make a delicious dinner.