Day one’s morning challenge was "Eggs Four Ways:" scrambled, over-easy, omelet and poached.
In one of the student kitchens, Anna’s game attempt to flip her two fried eggs over with a flick of her wrist landed one egg on the wall — and down it. She and her friends did exactly what I hoped they would: laughed until they were slightly teary-eyed.
So did I as I handi-wiped drippy yolk off of the wall outlet.
Each April, we teachers at Savannah Country Day’s Middle School put down our red pens and whiteboard markers for Mini-Mester, a week of enrichment courses designed to engage our students in experiential learning.
This past week, kids learned everything from fishing to theater tech design to fencing to 3D printing to how to survive a game of D&D. In addition to three week-long off-campus trips, local excursions allowed kids to do volunteer service at a number of Savannah nonprofits or to immerse themselves in the city’s art scene. The photos that accompany this article were taken by Allyson and Sophia, two sixth-graders who were in Mr. Swanson’s Funtography course.
For the last three years, I have had the great fortune to be the sous chef to dear friend and Jack-of-all-trades colleague David Nash in "Culinary Catfish," one of three cooking classes offered this year.
For the week, we trick out Mr. Wiley’s sixth-grade science classroom with portable gas burners, cutting boards, mixing bowls, and pretty much everything from our respective home kitchens so that we can introduce kids to a variety of cooking techniques, all for the intentional aim of having fun and making tasty food.
While each of our junior chefs this past week achieved both of those objectives, part and parcel of the experience are learning new skills for life, stretching individual boundaries, cooperating to realize shared goals, and building personal confidence.
Kids love food. In this albeit brief course, we want kids to love making the food they love to eat, hopefully lighting a gas flame that burns brightly for their entire lives.
Because I have found incredible joy being in a kitchen for my entire life, all thanks to my mom, there is not near enough room in this column to express what helping teach this course means to me. I hope this suffices: my wife and I have no kids of our own, so this is my annual opportunity to do whatever I can to kindle the joy of cooking and baking in young people and to help them take genuine pride in making food that they and others enjoy eating.
A culinary school graduate and one-time hotel and restaurant chef, David is the Chef de Cuisine of our course and designed the daily lessons, challenges, and menu themes. Each four-hour session began with a demonstration of technique — such as how to poach an egg properly, how to dice a carrot without also dicing a finger, or how to fork-open an English muffin to preserve the crannies — that then led to a challenge for each kid to practice and to replicate what they had been shown in their teams.
Because so many teens and tweens are fans of "Chopped Junior" and "MasterChef Junior," we “judged” each kitchen’s execution and awarded points. Whatever team was leading after the morning challenge chose first from the day’s menu of dishes to prepare.
Day by day
Throughout the week, each commis or basic chef quartet rotated to me to learn how to make a different type of bread or pastry. On day one, four eighth-grade girls baked white sandwich loaves from scratch. In a week of a thousand smiles, one of my fondest was when Anna (of the Wall Egg) and Banks came running back to our classroom after their lunch break to see how their dough had proofed before the pans went in the oven.
On day two, Chef Nash taught basic knife skills, including how to grip a chef’s knife and how to curl little fingers so that the blade rested against little knuckles. My bakers on day two were seventh-grade girls, all of whom are my English students this year, and because the day’s theme was comfort foods, we made scratch cream scones and buttermilk biscuits.
Before they had mixed the wet into the dry, all four had marked their foreheads and cheeks with dry flour à la Braveheart. Edie chose to make biscuits, and Ella, Marlo and Stella each chose different flavors for their scones — chocolate-cappuccino, lemon-currant and cherry-almond.
No lie: what they made was better-than-bakery quality. After we all downed the morning’s menu of cheeseburger sliders, grilled cheeses, tomato soup, chicken wings, and fries, the pastries were no match for 16 middle schoolers, rightly reduced to crumbs. Stella’s cherry-almond was the best scone I have had in years, better than my own, I am delighted to admit.
Before the class meal was served on Wednesday, International Day, a P.E. teacher came in and live-tweeted the course, adding to the already steady stream of other kids peeking their heads in and hoping to steal a taste of the scratch-made angel hair and in meatball-filled marinara or half a Cuban sandwich.
After cleaning up on day three, the kitchen teams stuck around to plan their own menus on day four of Chopped-esque competition, texting each other links to recipes and shopping lists.
Day four’s team-made meals had to be plated by 10:45 a.m. to leave enough time for judging, eating and cleaning. The kids were incredible, working cooperatively and overcoming minor setbacks in stride. Marlo and Edie worried when the pork in their first batch of fried wontons was not fully cooked, but they lowered the temperature of their oil and produced dozens of perfectly crisp and properly done bites to go with tasty chicken teriyaki fried rice.
I brought in my Weber Smokey Joe so that one kitchen could grill lemon-garlic chicken kebabs and summer vegetable skewers, accompanied by tzatziki, sauteed red potatoes, and lemon rice. The team of Agnes, Hollyann, Ramon, and Tillman cranked out piles of airy waffles served with homemade strawberry butter and crunchy-coated fried chicken drumsticks.
Though he was very busy with our Lower School’s Grandparents Day, our headmaster sneaked in as a surprise guest judge, just after 11, and tucked into samples of everything that had been prepared. The final result: we just could not declare a winner because everything turned out better than what we would have been served at many actual restaurants.
A universal truth is that people love food. A corollary converse is that not everyone loves to cook. My explanation of this paradox is confidence. I was lucky to overcome any fears of being in a kitchen for the purposes of preparation because my mom taught me how to use a hand mixer and a paring knife when I was little. I understand that not every kid has that experience, which is why I so appreciate being part of this unique teaching opportunity each spring.
I won’t lie to you: these four mornings are tougher than my usual day-to-day of teaching direct objects, reading “Animal Farm,” and the like. After all, my English classroom doesn’t have knives that chop and burners that burn. Still, it is invaluable to see a kid chef hard at work and to see her sheer happiness when a dish turns out and tastes delicious.
As we polished off the to-die-for apple-cinnamon quick bread she and Alysa made, Maya smiled and said, “The mistakes are funny. I can make a main dish now. Before, I would have messed it up.”
Anna admitted, “I didn’t know how to make anything except Eggos in the toaster,” and added, “Cooking’s a lot more fun when you know what you’re doing.”
Amen and amen, girls.
Sixth-grader Ramon, who started his own cooking club earlier this year, said his life goal is to own his own restaurant, after he has gone to culinary school in France.
You know how the saying goes: Take a kid to Chick-fil-A, he eats one meal. Encourage a kid to learn how to make fried chicken like Ramon makes fried chicken, he is happy for a lifetime.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.