The End of Culinary School is Really the Beginning.

My ELA teaching days begin in less than 48 hours, as I transition from being a student to being a teacher (although one should always view themselves as a student, someone learning and grasping for more).  And as I transition, I begin the first leg of the Barrio Bites journey by glancing back at my culinary school final exams.

I finished classes at the San Diego Culinary Institute a month ago, where the final exam was a two-day cooking demonstration.  Day 1 was a market basket needing to encompass a 5-course menu.  Day 2 was a set menu consisting of various items which were mandatory to include in the 5-courses.  Some, but not all, of the mandatory ingredients included duck, shrimp, rack of lamb, beef tenderloin, scallops, salmon, lemongrass, mango, puff pastry, phyllo dough, lemon, lime, orange, leeks, eggplant, cream cheese . . . well, the list went on and on, and it proved to be more difficult to even create a menu using all the items, let alone cook all the dishes, than I even could have imagined.

That being said, I felt good about the menu I created and I generally felt positive about the execution of the dishes.  Where I really need to work on improving is speed; some of my classmates were lightening fast compared to me as well as skillful.  It helped they’d had years of kitchen experience between them, and their confidence and certainty showed.  However, I felt strong about my dishes and I felt proud about how the menu was the first for Barrio Bites.  Sure, it wasn’t created by kids and they didn’t cook anything.  But it was my first time putting our little program’s stamp on something!  And in the coming months as I look to create equipment/appliance lists and budgets, obtain ingredients, and develop curriculum for the kids, Barrio Bites began to get a little bit airborne, as this was a joyful first step towards achieving flight!

Sautéed Scallop and Beef Filet with Asparagus Sauce

Warm Duck and Egg Salad

Leek Soup with Steamed Shrimp and Salmon

I wasn’t able to take photos of everything, and these photos are after the food has sat out for several hours.  But the point is simply this:  I will get our students cooking and having fun and learning about core subjects and developing skills, but most importantly, I will get them to learn about themselves the way I have through the honest makings of a meal.

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Maybe I’m a different breed.

Disclaimer:  I extern at Alchemy when not working for the King-Chavez Neighborhood of Schools or attending class at the San Diego Culinary Institute.

Listening a lot to the AWOLNATION song Sail, and the line “Maybe I’m a different breed” struck me as apropos for the title of this article because it reflects both Ms. Valine Moreno and Alchemy Restaurant.  Ms. Moreno is the ELD teacher at King-Chavez Preparatory Academy, and she also organizes/coordinates/wrangles/strategizes/etc. the Prep Summer Conservation Academy program, the program I’ve blogged about previously because I perform food demonstrations for the kids.  She is a fantastic teacher and human being who works tirelessly for the students in the King-Chavez family, and she is only one small example of how many who work for our school system have to be a different breed.  Teachers at the Prep and the greater King-Chavez community (and many schools elsewhere, but I’m not gonna get into a helicopter view) have to be everything to everyone.  Not merely a teacher, a principal, a counselor, a disciplinarian, a shoulder to lean on, an empathetic ear, a compassionate heart.  You need to be all these things for our students, you need to be a Renaissance human being because you might be the only one.  Hell, you need to be the Avengers packaged into one individual, and you need to take on 120 or more kids each day for 180 or more days!  You’d better have regenerative powers or else you’ll be worn down like the erasers on the pencils that disappear faster than the Flash (I”ll try to stop mixing metaphors).

Fortunately, most of the men and women at King-Chavez I’ve had the pleasure to work with can shoulder the load.  And they do it because they love the students, the reason for taking on such an arduous, often thankless, mission.  It’s not that public education is all pain and suffering and “”Woe is me?” hysteria; it’s just that working with kids (primary or secondary) requires more of you than there is to give.  And somehow you have to find a way to give because those students deserve everything and more.

Here’s an example of love for students:

Ms. Moreno is in the foreground on the left side.  These are only a handful of the SCA students.  This is a Saturday.  At the Barrio Logan Library.  Ms. Moreno and the students were gathering research material to help them write their research papers.  All of this is voluntary on Ms. Moreno and the students’ part, but nothing is done without thought.  Ms. Moreno has been planning and working hard to make this club a success all throughout the year, while teaching ELD to 6th,7th, and 8th graders!  And now she’s given up 4 weeks of her summer, so these students can partake in opportunities they might not have otherwise.  That’s a different breed.  And I’m fortunate to know many other people at Prep and King-Chavez just like Ms. Moreno (shout out to my wife, hay-oo!).

So where does Alchemy fit in to this?  Well, see how the kids are eating?

All of the food has been provided by Alchemy free of charge.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Alchemy has graciously and generously donated their time, their money, and their services to provide healthy, delicious, fresh meals to the Summer Conservation Academy students for the length of the program.  Without making a cent.

This is another example of a different breed.  A place like Alchemy doesn’t have to do anything for free.  They’re a business.  Not a charity.  Not a non-profit.  And yet . . . and yet . . . and yet I know of many instances where Alchemy operates as more than a restaurant.  I know how Chef Ricardo Heredia works with many other local schools such as the Albert Einstein Academy and McKinley Elementary.  How he looks to invest in the future while drawing on his own past regardless of whether it’s good for the restaurant’s Profit and Loss statement.  I know of how people like Ron Troyano and Matt Thomas, owners of Alchemy, strive to keep raising expectations by establishing a non-profit, The Front Burner, that looks to provide insurance for the all-to-often uninsured back-of-the-house staff (you know, the people who plan and create and cook all that food we desire as well as the people who clean all of our filthy dishes once we’ve scarfed down that delicious food).  I know when I approached Ron and Chef Ricardo about providing 25 meals for the Prep students, they didn’t smirk and look at me like I was crazy.  They just took it upon themselves to help out.  Because that’s the kind of people they are – a different breed, people willing to give back to the community even if it doesn’t show up in a cash register.

I’ll end on the perfect note.  At the above lunch, the kids had fresh roast beef tortilla wraps, potato/green leaf lettuce salad, and oranges.  Light, healthy, delicious, and the kids loved it.  But I knew when they saw greens, they might be hesitant to eat.  However, they’ve been instructed enough by me and Ms. Moreno to try everything once.  Once they’d tried everything, they inhaled it all.  And one young man summed it up best:  “I thought this was gonna taste bad, but it was actually really, really good!”  Another great learning experience.

“What’s Your Favorite Part of the Meal? The Zucchini Salad?!?!? Hell, yeah!”

Ok, that was not my response to the little elementary school girl attending this past Friday’s food demo for the Summer Conservation Academy (SCA) with her older sister.  At least not out loud.  But inside, that’s what I was saying (and that’s the PG-version)!  Because this little girl didn’t even want to try the vegetable salad I made for all the students.  No matter – she showed her courage, tried the zucchini, and loved it so much she got seconds.  Then, she proclaimed it her favorite part of the meal.  I’ve since adopted her as my daughter.  Here she is (she’s the one on the left).

On Friday, June 8th, another successful food demo with the middle school SCA students went down.  It was a bit of a frenetic mess to get everything prepped and prepared on time.  Meetings went late, the original chosen fish (Barred Sand Bass) made me nervous, and the damn mandolin I purchased was just not acquiescing to my demands.  However, like always, it was worth the trouble.  The SCA kids were enthusiastic, supportive, and hungry.  They polished off all the food, and they had room for seconds (and probably thirds, fourths, fifths . . . but I just didn’t have the resources, plus part of my responsibility is to limit portions so I don’t go all Cheesecake Factory on them).

Since this was the last demo of the school year, I wanted to do more than simply provide one item.  Fortunately, I’m still in culinary school and the day before the demonstration with the kids, my culinary class and I cooked up some eats I knew wasn’t going to all be eaten.  A lot of time, the food we prepare goes out to office staff and our teachers.  But since this was the end of the day, people were full, and a lot of the food was going unclaimed, I figured “waste not, want not.”  So I grabbed a quart of gaucho rice as well as some caramel cookies.  Now I had my starch and my dessert for the kids.  What should I make for protein and vegetable?

I needed to do something quick since I was in a rush.  After choosing not to use the barred sand bass, I decided I’d go with an affordable, sustainable fish I had available because I’d recently used it to make some gravlax: steelhead trout.

This was a great alternative since steelhead trout is listed on the Monterrey Bay aquarium site as the best choice for rainbow trout (Best Choice = “Seafood in this category is abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.).  I then made a Cajun Spice Rub I found in the indispensible book, The Cook’s Book.  Peter Gordon wrote a chapter on Flavorings, and he provided the rub for salmon.  Since steelhead is very similar to salmon and less of a concern in terms of fishing issues, I thought it would work as a nice substitute with the rub and it did!  Super easy to prep and prepare.  Since I didn’t have everything listed, I adapted and it worked out beautifully:

  • 1 t ground cumin, 1 t ground garlic, 1 t Spanish paprika, 1/4 t ground thyme, 1 t ground oregano, 1 t Japanese 7 spice, T/T salt and black pepper (Note: t = teaspoon, T/T = To Taste)

I mixed all the dry spices together and rubbed them all over the trout, which I let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.  After the 30 minutes, I simply pan seared the fish for a couple of minutes on each side to blacken.

While it rested, I made the zucchini salad.  I had a lot of lemons and zucchini since it was summertime.  The fruits were provided to me by Garret Ford, a 7th-grade Science teacher at King-Chavez Preparatory who grows a significant amount of his own food (thank you, Mr. Ford!).  I wanted to demonstrate to the kids the versatility of different foods.  Since I’d made the pajeon a couple of weeks before with zucchini, I wanted to show-case it again in a totally different, but delicious (and simple) way that highlighted the flavors.  In Michael Ruhlman’s book, 20, he has a beautiful photo of a raw zucchini salad, so I decided to make that since it was a great seasonal dish with the fish.  I didn’t totally follow his recipe, just the broad outline and most ingredients.  I macerated some shallots and garlic in 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, while I tried to Julienne the zucchini with the mandolin.  This did not go so well.  The damn mandolin would just not follow my directions.  As I stubbornly tried to set up the correct blades and dimensions, I realized I was wasting my time, so I just grabbed my knife and started slicing.  I added the macerated shallots and lemon with the zucchini, some extra virgin olive oil, salt, pine nuts, parsley, orange zest, and BOOM!  Salad! (Note:  I had a little left-over paprika oil, so I used some of that as a garnish/flavoring on top of the salad to provide a nice color contrast.)

The cardboard serving dish really sells this!

At school, I had 10-12 hungry kids.  I wasn’t able to demonstrate how the food was made, but we did discuss the fish and the cooking method.  And who am I kidding?  Right now, these kids just want to eat.  They don’t want to hear all about production.  Still, I talk a little about rubs, about the fish, about the beauty of vegetables because I think it’s important for them to have some understanding of what I’m cooking and they are eating.  Little by little, my goal is to get them educated and excited about food and all the beauty involved with cooking/eating.  And it helps me better understand cooking and kids when it becomes an active, rather than passive, education.

Anyways, the kids gobbled the food up, talked and laughed with each other, demonstrated real gratitude toward me (the best of which was the simple fact they ate all their food).  Again, I was reinvigorated by youth.  That’s the best part –  they think I’m giving them something, and they don’t even know they’re giving me so much more.

Quote

“The fight is never abo…

The fight is never about the grapes or lettuce, it is always about the people.” Cesar Chavez

I can go in many directions with this quote, but I chose it because of its beautiful simplicity.  When you’re talking about various medical issues that stem from poor eating; the deleterious work conditions too many impoverished people suffer under; issues of classicism that prevent people from enjoying healthy foods and keep certain businesses out (and others in); and so many other issues, the topic of food is always buttressed by flesh-and-blood human beings.  Chavez understood this better than anyone, and now the fight needs to extend beyond the fields and meatpacking plants, and into the schools.  Here, in an educational setting, the future of tomorrow is not only acquiring the skills to prepare themselves for the world ahead, but they are busy acquiring diabetes and becoming obese.  It is our moral imperative to the youth to help give them all we can for their survival and well-being, and the survival and well-being of generations to come.

Pajeon, meet your customers . . . King-Chavez estudiantes!

I had no idea how yesterday would go.  I’m into the fourth week of food demos for the King-Chavez Summer Conservation Academy kiddos, and I had decided I was going to make pajeon, a savory-style pancake popular in Korea.  There’s a myriad number of ways to make them and a myriad number of ingredients one can use, so it’s a versatile dish to try.  I was going the lemon basil-zucchini route with spicy mayo drizzled on top.  My issue didn’t stem from this overabundance of opportunity, but a simple, narrow-minded perspective: I was going to (attempt) to feed Latino kids a vegetable pancake!

Part of the reason I love food is no matter your culture, your religion, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, you’ll find food in those circles.  It connects people, it brings people together, it is a gateway.  Now it might be a gateway to exposing our differences rather than our similarities (“Hey, I’m starved let’s go grab some InNOut. Huh?  What do you mean you think it’s over-rated.  Son-of-a . . . ).  No matter.  Wherever you go, food is there.  So with students, I really want to expose them to other food choices.  Maybe they agree it tastes great (Man, this pajeon is awesome!), maybe they think the idea of a pancake needs to stick with mix from a box and gets served at breakfast.  And vegetables?  In a pancake?  That’s not a pancake!  That’s gross!  That’s . . . I don’t know what the hell that is, but whatever it is, I’m not eating it!

I really had no idea how it would turn out.  But what’s the fun if you don’t take some risks, and how do you learn anything if you never fail?  Einstein said,”Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”  And guess what?  I’m the one who made a mistake.  By doubting students.  Because I was really worried the kids would be turned off by the whole idea, but they proved me wrong.  Again.  People who say kids won’t be willing to try this or won’t like that?  Those people don’t know kids very well.  It’s generally the adults who are more stubborn, more insistent they won’t try something new because they just know it’s not for them.  Those people suck.  Avoid them.  No, really, avoid them.

These kids loved the pajeon.  Some more than others, but the overall consensus skewed strongly in the positive.  And, more importantly, they all tried the dish.  They could have hated it.  It’s not for everyone.  We all have different palettes.  We all like different flavor profiles.  It’s part of being unique.  But all the students were bold enough and open enough to trying the dish, and if I can make the kids eat a vegetable pancake, it’s a small, but relevant, victory.

So thank you, King-Chavez students, for teaching me the lesson.

Note:  More pics will be posted, but I’d forgotten my camera so I’m waiting to get photos from a student.