White House Kitchen Welcomes Brainfood
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
July 2, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Food Politics , Sustainable Food | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, White House Garden
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