Cook it and they will learn

The culinary arts program at ODSS has found a way to kids’ hearts and minds through their stomachs.

September 15, 2008 | | Back Issues

At 11:05 am at Orangeville District Secondary School, classes may seem strangely empty. Everyone’s supposed to be studying, yet a long line of students and staff is already forming outside the culinary arts classroom.

Behind the door, students execute a high-pressure scrum in the teaching kitchen. A senior student calls out a countdown, restaurant-style: “Ten minutes to window!” The mob of culinary trainees coalesces out of barely organized chaos into something resembling the fine co-ordination of a ballet or a hockey team.

At 11:15 the lunch bell rings. The doors open and 150 diners stream in. For three to five dollars, they can pick up a sandwich on fresh-baked bread or a steak carved from a locally raised cow and butchered in the classroom, a side of potatoes and a salad grown by students in the school’s own greenhouse and harvested that day. By 11:30 the food is sold out. Latecomers have to head off-site or down the hall to the school’s main cafeteria.

This impromptu, classroom-based restaurant started as a way to dispense with the surplus food produced by the morning culinary arts class. Now it has grown into a successful, four-day-a-week business with loyal customers who won’t eat anywhere else – certainly not the school’s main caf – and it has become the focal point of a school curriculum that’s engaging students, giving them hands-on career experience, and changing the way they eat and think about food. The student-run restaurant is now so popular that it’s running out of space – and could even put the school’s main, for-profit cafeteria out of business.

ODSS has had a culinary arts program for years, but last year it got a turbo boost when the culinary arts teacher, chef Kevin Smith, and geography department head Jamie Richards had a vision to start an alternative food program where kids could grow, cook and sell their own healthy food made from fresh, local ingredients.

“I kept saying we should grow food here,” says Richards, who runs an organic market garden at home. “And that’s when I teamed up with Kevin. He was just teaching single-credit courses. He said, ‘I really want to have kids for two periods and I really want to be able to teach them something.’”

The two teachers co-ordinated so that Smith’s students can now buy vegetables grown by Richards’ geography students in the school greenhouse – or aspiring chefs can take both classes and learn to grow what they cook.

The growing trend to transform school food from French fries to healthy, artisanal offerings is personified by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who used his status to tackle the school food issue in 2005. He discovered that the British system was spending only 37 pence (about 74 cents) per student on lunches and feeding them such ghastly processed food as “Turkey Twizzlers.” Oliver scolded the generation of parents who had traded nutrition for convenience and left their kids to pay the hefty price with their health. His hands-on effort to reform London school cafeterias and spark a new national food culture became the BBC reality show, Jamie’s School Dinners. Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by banning school junk food and devoting £280 million to a fix.

But Oliver was really just bringing star power to what was already becoming a global phenomenon. In 2004, the Ontario government had already banned the sale of junk food in elementary school vending machines. In 2005, U.S. legislators introduced some 200 school food bills in forty states. And in 2006, Berkeley, California, launched its School Lunch Initiative to put fresh, locally grown food in school cafeterias, establish more schoolyard gardens and work cooking into the curriculum.

Richards and Smith were on the same wavelength, but their inspiration had come from Stratford Northwestern Secondary School. The culinary arts teacher there, chef Paul Finkelstein, had already become famous for turning his classroom into a successful restaurant, the Screaming Avocado Café.

Inspired by the California local-food activist and chef Alice Waters, who pioneered edible gardens in Berkeley schools, Finkelstein started the café back in 2004 – before Jamie’s School Dinners. He had Stratford Northwestern students buy their ingredients locally or grow them in their own 3,000-square-foot garden. The Screaming Avocado’s three-dollar lunch menus have included confit of duck with foie gras mashed potatoes, crispy frog legs with Thai noodle salad, and Moroccan braised lamb shanks with vegetable couscous.

Students also run a culinary club that has raised funds through catered events and community dinners to take “slow food journeys” to fine restaurants from Toronto to Tokyo. Finkelstein even hosted a FoodTV reality show, Fink, which followed the club’s journey to the global slow food conference in Italy.

A couple of years ago, Jamie Richards and Kevin Smith made a pilgrimage to the Screaming Avocado and used it as the model for their program. Then, just as they got rolling, the Ministry of Education brought out the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program, offering culinary arts as one of the options.

The government program dovetailed perfectly with the teachers’ plan. It puts students in the kitchen for a double credit each year – a full morning, four days a week – just as Smith wanted. It also gives them valuable industry certifications like Smart Serve, safe food handling and first aid, and sends them out for co-op work experience in local restaurants, including Orangeville’s One99 and Bluebird Café, and the Millcroft Inn in Alton – giving them work hours that count towards an apprenticeship if they continue in the trade.

In previous years, Smith’s culinary arts classes had always cooked food for the cafeteria. As a result, instruction revolved around making cafeteria fare. Students would go into the caf and help staff cook fries or chicken fingers, and in the classroom, said Smith, “we were doing pizza and bread sticks to ship over.”

But when the school contracted out the cafeteria to super-sized food-service company Chartwells School Dining Services, the relationship ended and Smith says they had to start selling food out of the classroom, “but it gave us the opportunity to do whatever we wanted instead of focusing on cafeteria food.”

Having a new crop of twenty keen culinary arts majors – along with another thirty students who are taking the credits but not specializing – spending back-to-back periods in his kitchen also upped the ante. “The kids are demanding more. It’s not like fifteen years ago where the kids came in and made sandwiches and Rice Crispie squares. They want to do something more complex,” says Smith.

Chelsea Zigomanis, 18, is a perfect example. Now in grade 12, she was among the first crop of students in the high skills major. She dreams of going to college and becoming a pastry chef and asks for baking assignments in class. Baking has caught on in the school, to the point that there may be a specialized bakery program someday, according to Richards.

After twenty-two years as a teacher, Richards has found the program to be a revelation. “I started out thinking I could teach them lofty ideas. Then I kind of just wanted to turn them into nice people; now I’ve realized that my biggest contribution is that they’re actually eating their greens.”

Smith says, “Now we do full menus. We do cookies, cinnamon buns all from scratch. We bake bread every morning for sandwiches. Main courses include fresh greens from the garden. We’ve done frog legs, Thai food, Indian food. Everything sells out. We’ve got this clientele of students who trust our food and they’ll try anything we make. We serve about 150 kids. We do $500 a day in sales in about fifteen minutes.”

Those earnings he pumps back into the food budget. “We’re basically self-supporting,” says Smith. Some of that money circulates in the school itself, going to buy fresh greens and vegetables from Richards’ geography students, who in turn use their earnings to buy seeds and supplies.

As part of the geography program, student groups establish their own “earth-friendly” food-growing businesses and can sell their produce to the culinary arts program, school staff, community members or other restaurants. Students even spent part of Earth Week selling their greenhouse produce at Orangeville’s Harmony Whole Foods. At least one student picked up a regular customer who would phone his cell during school hours (against school rules) to place orders.

Back when they visited the Screaming Avocado Café, Richards and Smith only dreamed about emulating its success. Today, the student-run restaurant serves about as many people, and with enrolment in the culinary arts high skills major increasing from twenty to forty-eight this year, it will grow even bigger.

Smith’s teaching kitchen is already full to capacity. The only solution is either to add a new facility or take over the much larger commercial kitchen in the main cafeteria. The larger program will be producing more food anyway, so it would make sense to cook for the whole school. Like Jamie Oliver, Smith is confident that his classes could prepare higher-quality meals for the same price as the main caf’s current burgers-and-fries fare.

Teacher Jamie Richards takes Chelsea and Shannon on a tour of the school greenhouse where his geography students grow some of the vegetables the students use as ingredients in the culinary creations they then sell to the student lunch crowd.

Teacher Jamie Richards takes Chelsea and Shannon on a tour of the school greenhouse where his geography students grow some of the vegetables the students use as ingredients in the culinary creations they then sell to the student lunch crowd. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Still, taking over the school cafeteria is a politically touchy subject. The school’s administration has extended Chartwells’ contract until Christmas, and may not ever want to take on the financial responsibility of running its own restaurant business. But Richards and Smith believe that the board is at least open to their proposal and the change could come.

Chartwells is part of the Compass Group, a $27 billion food service company and the seventh largest employer on the planet. In Canada, Compass has revenues of $1.3 billion and serves food everywhere from universities to Toronto Blue Jays games. Chartwells itself serves a million Canadian K-12 students a day.

The success of the culinary arts restaurant has created a bit of tension with this for-profit neighbour, says Richards. “Some days we serve more people in our alternative caf than the main caf which has seating for probably five or six hundred kids.”

It is perhaps ironic that a bunch of school kids could beat the aprons off the world’s largest food service company. Or perhaps not, because the culinary arts program doesn’t have to pay labour costs or turn a profit for overseas shareholders. Smith’s kitchen only needs to pay educational dividends. Preparing lunch is a learning experience: the better the food, the more interesting the lesson.

It may also be the best way to realize the much-talked-about goal of improving the way kids eat.

Chartwells has responded to the healthy school food trend with its own nutrition policies. But big government and corporate solutions tend to be top-down and reductionist, like the McGuinty government’s resolution to ban trans fat from school food. Or Chartwells’ pledge to make at least half of its sandwiches with whole grain bread. All very good, but trans-fat-free French fries are still French fries, whole grain does not mean homemade, whereas in the kitchen-as-classroom, the hands-on experience of food preparation is necessarily more holistic – and also happens to be local by default.

One of this year’s ODSS kitchen highlights was “the cow.” Actually a small, naturally raised steer Smith purchased from Shelburne farmer Paul Brown, which arrived in the classroom as 500 pounds of beef in two sides.

“We sawed it up right in the classroom, carved it into the cuts, ground the meat, made the stock out of the bones, and then we packaged it, froze it and used it throughout the next month or two,” says Smith. “Kids don’t even get that in college. This is the beauty of being self-funded. We can do whatever we choose to do.”

The exercise became a lesson, not just about cooking, but about where food comes from. Which as an educational concept is a very old idea.

The culinary arts program, with its microcosm of a local food economy, is accomplishing what the environmental philosopher David Orr, in his book Ecological Literacy, years ago called the true goal of “a genuine liberal arts education,” that is, to “equip a person to live well in a place.”

Orr also said that education should be participatory and experiential, and respond “to the real needs and the life situation of the learner.” And he quotes the educational philosopher John Dewey, who in 1897 proposed that we should “make each of our schools an embryonic community…with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society.”

Now, 111 years later, here we are finally getting around to it.

High school programs give kids real-world work experience

The new Ontario Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program lets students take a career-specific study track in grades 11 and 12. Piloted on a small scale in 2006-07, it’s now in more than 300 schools province-wide.

The SHSM offers fourteen possible majors in specific employment sectors, including health and wellness, arts and culture, and information and communications technology.

The goal is real-world career experience and, in the words of the ministry, to reduce dropout rates by “providing students with more opportunities to customize their school experience and build on their strengths and interests.” Students get hands-on learning in the school, co-op work placements and valuable, industry-recognized certifications.

Orangeville District Secondary School launched its culinary arts major in 2007-08 with twenty students and has about forty-eight enrolled this fall. This school year it is also adding two majors, one in construction trades and one in the environment. About eighty students are enrolled in the three programs.

Environment students could do co-op work in environmental science, parks or recreation and earn certifications in such fields as GIS (geographical information systems) or recreation.

Construction majors will study under skilled tradespeople with Aragon Hockley Developments, helping to build the new Watermark Living development north of Orangeville.

Watermark’s project manager, Norm Sargent, calls the program “long overdue.”

“I’ve seen the quality of trades deteriorate over the years. The training has to start with these young people. In all likelihood these trades are going to pick them up and keep them for a few years until they become very valuable.”

Graduates will be able to get a job straight out of school, launch an apprenticeship, go on for further study, or maybe just decide the job’s not for them – an early life experience in the modern phenomenon of career change.

“When I bring them in here, we want ’em to quit!” says Cassidy Chin, the manager of One99 Restaurant, who compares the co-op work experience to culinary boot camp. “I push ’em, push ’em, push ’em. Either they love this industry or they don’t. The ones that love it stay.”

ODSS teacher Jamie Richards says the program is ideal for kids who are experiential learners, not academics. It’s also good for the community, connecting students with careers close to home, compared to the university kids who leave and never come back to Orangeville.

“We’ve got so many kids going off to university and they shouldn’t be. They have the marks. But it’s the wrong thing for them,” says Richards.

In the culinary arts major, he says, “they really catch fire. All of a sudden they fall in love with baking, for example, and off they go. They have a resumé that would blow almost any other kid away by the time they’re done.”

About the Author More by Tim Shuff

Tim Shuff is a freelance writer.

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