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White House Kitchen Welcomes Brainfood

White House chef Sam Kass, far left, shucks corn with members of Brainfood; Andre Monroe, 17, Stephanie Blyskal, volunteer, and Carina Gervacio, program coordinator. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

You can use all the help you can get when you're making dinner for 1,200. Even if you are Cristeta Comerford. This week, the White House executive chef got 10 extra pairs of hands to prepare for the Obamas' Fourth of July extravaganza.

No. It wasn't those kids, the lucky fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School who have helped to prepare, plant and harvest produce from the garden on the White House lawn. In the kitchen this week were Washington area high school students and graduates of the Brainfood program, an area nonprofit organization that helps teach teenagers life skills through cooking.

The invitation to come cook for an official event is a first for the White House kitchen. It is part of a broader East Wing strategy to turn students into what Michelle Obama has called "little ambassadors" for the cause of healthful food. Last week, nine Brainfood students helped make strawberry tiramisu and chocolates topped with gold leaf for the White House luau. This week, the chosen ones are readying a menu for the first family's first Independence Day.

"It's not like they're here only because we're trying to do the right thing," Comerford said. "They're helping. For me, it's really good to have them."

Brainfood, which was founded in 1999, offers after-school and summer programs in which students learn to cook. The goal is not to turn out chefs, though many do become interested in food as a career. Instead, as the students learn to measure and scale recipes, they learn math skills, how to follow directions and how to work in teams. "We talk a lot about raising the bar," said executive director Paul Dahm. "And to get the opportunity to cook here? These guys are helping us do our job by proving us right: If you work hard, you can succeed."

Many of the students' tasks, such as washing potatoes and lettuce and shucking crates of corn, are grunt work. But it isn't all drudgery. White House sous-chefs take turns supervising student helpers. As they work, they talk to the students about how they got their jobs: through hard work and perseverance, according to Comerford. "Every job here in the kitchen counts," she said.

The chefs also impart cooking tips. As the students shucked corn this week, Comerford and Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef who is also overseeing the garden, explained how to tell if an ear is fresh. (Answer: If the kernels are full of moisture, it will be heavy and the silk will be light without a hint of black.)

Kass also treated the students with a trip to the garden. (On the way, they saw the Obamas' dog, Bo.) Kass pointed out the lettuces and cabbage grown from seeds he'd procured from Monticello. He explained that the White House beehives are strapped down; otherwise the presidential helicopter would blow them over when it lands. Before heading back to the kitchen, they planted Sungold and Brandywine tomatoes.

The tour was a variation of the kind the White House plans to offer twice weekly to visiting school groups. Kass is developing a curriculum that aims to teach young students about how vegetables grow in the garden and how they can grow their own.

The test run seemed to go well. Andre Monroe, a 17-year-old student at Columbia Heights' Cardozo High School, already wanted to be a chef before his visit but said he loved his first experience in a professional kitchen. Asha Fears, a senior at Banneker High School in Shaw, said her friends were wowed that she was cooking at the White House; many now wanted to join the Brainfood program. Evan Douglas, a 16-year-old at the School Without Walls, a magnet school in Northwest, summed it up this way: "This is pretty cool."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 2, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, White House Garden  
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The White House continues to make me proud. Yes, I know we have lots of problems in the world, so it’s great to see positive stories about young people being inspired to pursue their dreams. I’m sure some of you will find something negative with story.

Posted by: letsgetreal | July 2, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Jane – thanks for this fantastic highlight of the five days that our young people got to spend at the White House. They were so excited when they heard they were headed to the White House and we’re so proud of how they rose to the occasion. It was a huge honor for them to share their culinary skills with the White House staff and help prepare food for the President, his family and guests. I think it’s also important to point out that the White House chefs worked side-by-side with our youth to peel the potatoes, shuck the corn, etc. There were no small jobs.

For your readers who don’t know us, Brainfood has a ten year history of making healthy food and cooking more accessible to our city’s youth and we are thrilled that our program and the First Lady’s efforts to encourage healthful eating are so closely aligned. I hope that her attention to this critical issue will shine a light on two things: the opportunity to impact the health and well being of millions of people and the need for more groups like Brainfood to provide quality youth development programs for our nation’s young people.

Brainfood not only changes attitudes and knowledge about food, but empowers our teens with long-term benefits. For instance, our culinary program teaches math, reading, science, teamwork, leadership, time management, patience and creativity – all of which are directly transferable to home, school and work – for the rest of their lives. We’ve just started our summer program and can’t wait to see what comes next.

Paul Dahm
Brainfood Executive Director

Posted by: PaulDahm | July 2, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I am in awe of the how the White House, in six short months, has changed. This is EXACTLY the right way to change eating habits for life and to show that respect is due to those who cook for us, grow for us and serve us. Thank you!

Posted by: tuckerjules | July 2, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Kuddos to President and Michelle Obama.
It's wonderful to see the changes that they have made in opening up the White House and making it accessible, especially to the next generation. I love seeing their involvement and pride in the people of this country. They are not closing themselves off to the average American. They are reaching out and they are getting people to respond. That's what it's all about. Thank you President Obama and Michelle!!

Posted by: Shelley4 | July 2, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

So glad to see some of the wonderful students I've met from Brainfood getting such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Props to the White House for opening up the kitchen this way.

Posted by: metrocurean | July 2, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I was one of the students that got to do this and it was such a great experience!!

Posted by: by_courtney_b | July 6, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Paul: thank you for sending me the link to this story and the photos. This is so cool. I want to add to this thread my high regard for you, your work, and Brainfood's programs and impact. You deserved this invitation -- and you all must be bursting. I cant imagine how many Cloud Nine's your kids are on!! Thanks to the Post for being there and reporting this. It is so great to also learn about the thoughtfull ways the White House Aligns its values with Actions. Congrats on all fronts. Kathy Jankowski, Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington

Posted by: kjankowski1 | July 6, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

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