Six weeks into our Teen Chef Cooking program and the NYCHA Drew Hamilton kitchen has turned into a culinary transporter of sorts—we are no longer in Harlem. Each week, the students get a chance to travel and experience far away lands, produce, and spices. Recently, our magical culinary carpet took us to France, Italy and Morocco.
Week four introduced our budding chefs to sauce making. Not only in our pan sauce, but also with our spicy Dijon honey mustard sauce for homemade chicken tenders and in Rachael Ray’s Balsamic Butter sauce for the asparagus, we put that knowledge to practice. Every student had a turn to be at the stove, pan searing their chicken cutlet and making their own sauce—sautéing shallots, scooping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan and reducing chicken stock, adding lemon juice, tarragon and small dab of cold butter at the end—which could not have been better if we had actually been in Dijon, France. Doug, one of our Monday night students, was in charge of “fixing” our pan sauces we’d combined at the end. It was a bit salty when Doug took the helm, but by adding some more acid, a little dab of cold butter, and some more fresh minced tarragon, he was able to round out those flavors to make a great pan sauce—practicing the one motto in the kitchen we aim to teach any student, “we are smarter than the food, so let’s make the food work for us!” It is the pride in their sense of accomplishment which makes the food taste all the better. “Is this some good food we are cooking in here or what?” exclaimed Will, one of our students who wants to go to culinary school, as he brought the center director, Renee, a plate of the food he’d prepared.
“My pizza is shaped like Africa, “ said Hanai, as she proudly began decorating her newly shaped pizza dough.In week five, the teen chefs were immersed in all things Italian, including our cheese tasting, and the San Marzano tomatoes for our homemade sauce. Our teens are not only creative in the way they mold and decorate their pizzas but also adventurous. During our cheese tasting, the students, while hesitant, were up for the earthy and stinky challenge! “Why does that cheese have the green coloring?, “ one student asked about our Gorgonzola. “Wow, that is strong!” exclaimed many of the students as they tried real Parmesan for the first time. The best part was that if we had tried to introduce these cheeses earlier in the program, most of the teens would have politely declined to participate, but as we work more and more as a team, they have built trust in stepping out onto this new food terrain together—even with laughs and funny faces to disguise their pleasure in discovering new favorite foods like Fontina cheese.
As we opened our week six classes, we asked, “Can you smell the rich spices, see the vibrant colors, hear a new language? That’s how we know we’re in a different land—welcome to Morocco!” As part of the curriculum, we searched for a seasoned chef to come in to teach two of the classes and mentor students, answering their questions about the industry and what it’s really like to work the line or go to culinary school. We hit the jackpot with Chef Michelle Spiegel, who generously donated her time to introduce our students to the cuisine of Morocco—new spices and herbs, couscous as a new grain, a flavorful Moroccan stew, and beautiful poached pears for dessert. Michelle is a former senior instructor with the French Culinary Institute, my former school, and a thirteen year veteran with experience in some of the best restaurants and catering companies in NYC. Michelle spoke to the students from the front-line—sharing her knowledge from what kitchens look for when they hire to why chefs wear whites. Attention was high when Chef Michelle shared her collection of knives and explained why chefs need different tools for the jobs in the kitchen—and she always stressed the importance of teamwork and being organized. It was great to hear her repeat and reinforce the many lessons we’ve been teaching the teens—but now coming from yet another respected source! What capped off week six for me was seeing the pride the teens had as they signed and then gave to Chef Michelle their gift to her, a book on Moroccan cuisine—a small detail added into their normal classroom flow but an important lesson in the importance of a simple thank you.