Getting To The Source

curtido jan 2013
The closest we’ve been to carrots this week: Curtido for our enchiladas.

We’ve been visiting restaurants this last week, it is something I always put aside as a special perk, until I realize how much value even the briefest time is to our students.  Both chefs, Laurence Jossell of NOPA and Alexander Ong of Betelnut, reminded us again of that word: source.  Getting the flavor right demands having a connection to the original ingredient, the source.  Even to know what a good carrot tastes like, as Laurence puts it, becomes important.  And the pairing of flavors at Alex’s restaurant obviously share that sentiment.

The flavor of an ingredient may sound trivial to some, but what we heard was the connection to that flavor.  Which made me think even more about the actual process of connecting to what we do.

So much of what we deal with in daily life is surface oriented. Getting to this text, getting to that email (or if you are an educator, there are a host of acronym-filled tasks to choose from) — real connection to our lives, drifts off.  We see this in our students when we ask them about planning for their future.  In the race to get that diploma, what happens afterwards can become a thought that easily drifts away.

What I love about our class is that our students make a connection to what it feels like to work under pressure, to accomplish a delicious achievement, to connect to a variety of new experiences using all of their senses, from their hands to their tastebuds.  They are starting to know what that kind of carrot “tastes like”,  and better yet, they can actually begin to describe it in real, working terms.  When students get to that source, that connection and value to their potential, then amazing things can happen.

Thank you Laurence and Alex for your generosity!  Time to start planning our next Long Table Dinner.

The New 13

frittata 01102013 web Counting ourselves lucky as we get to cook in our first week back, thanks to our students being ready to try completely new things to them, and keep an open mind.  Frittata over tomato sauce, salad and biscotti in the first week.  With all the dishes clean and put away before that ringing bell.

And this time,  no full class spent on measuring, no new module on the ins and outs on what it means to be a chef – BAM.  You walk in, put on a workshirt, keep your pride of work (each step of the way) and your professionalism going and it is all a piece of cake. Together we can do a lot.

And, by the way, there will be no slacking this quarter.  We will appreciate the good moments and keep our sense of kindness through our mishaps but we mean business. We are already talking about our next Long Table Dinner, about job shadows and creating some delicious food.

Look out people!  And save the date to come and enjoy our accomplishments:  Thursday March 7th.  Long Table Dinner. 6-8pm.   More Soon!  It is a New Year.

Vocabulary Test

The school year is starting in just a few days… so much to do and so little time!  But vocabulary is always in the forefront of an educator’s mind when they are getting ready to teach.

As a chef, one doesn’t think so much about vocabulary.  It is more important that you know how to warn someone you are behind them (“Behind”) or that you are about to make a loud noise (in which case you say clearly “Loud Noise,” before you bang that rolling pin on the pastry dough).  There are many times where saying less means much more.

So while “mise en place”, “blanche” and “saute” are important cooking terms & techniques, our classroom focuses more on working world vocabulary and working attributes  make for a great hunting ground.  When you work with a person who is just seeing their own potential – and its resulting accomplishment, then you watch them as they put it into words like this , it is magical.   Reason#59a why people enjoy teaching.

Then there are a few words we’ve adapted to better suit our team spirit:

Positivity:  our style of staying positive, more of a constant strength that keeps you going rather than something to rise up to or turn on or off.  It is more fun that way.

Respectual:  this version of respect seems to demand less and share more.  It’s respect and mutual blended together.  And we are in this together.

Here’s to the new school year, ready,set, go!   Please join us for our next Long Table Dinner, we are setting our sights on October 11th, and more news on that soon!


silent cheese tasting

It has been awhile since we’ve added an entry – but the subject of student drive has been popping up in discussions with teachers and industry professionals lately, particularly as we get further involved with job shadows in restaurants and hotels.  There is a lot of resiliency and activity by students in our classroom – that’s the reason many take the class – they are certainly not lazy.

Then put a student in a real restaurant kitchen, without their friends and familiar environment and these days, more often than not, they freeze up.   It is natural to be shy or nervous, but this can take on a different appearance than the jitters – it can look more like hanging back and waiting.  When most chefs see this, they take it to be a lack of initiative, or even care. What is odd is that we in education are seeing this “hang back” across the board more frequently, whether it is a continuation high school student, a comprehensive high school student, or yes, even college students.  It is not necessarily that young people don’t care, some don’t seem familiar with how to display their care. For others,  I wonder if they are numbed with over receiving information  & more ways to distract oneself in short spurts than ever before.  The problem definitely runs deeper than just learning manners.

Do you remember the first job you loved? That fire in your belly excitement?  Why don’t we see this in our students more? And what steps did we take to get enough under our belts to get into that gear?  How do you teach drive?

I try to remember back to where I got my drive.  Trying out various jobs that seemed like good fits (and often weren’t) but I was able to take away something of value from each one.  Building self value while you are finding your passion in those early jobs is in itself an important part of preparing for what happens after high school (and by the way, many high school students haven’t explored their future in terms of their passions – or can get jobs in today’s economy for that matter).

Still, many students make plans without really gathering information first, because that is what is required of them – a post secondary plan. Like a required worksheet, it gets decided without understanding the spark that should have prompted its formation. Planning your future is not a simple formula, but that is the beauty of it too.  It is not going to have all the answers, but it is all about you, it has value and you need to have a sense of yourself before you can make one.

And that is where active practice comes in.  It doesn’t matter what we are doing, many students are so hungry for activity, seeking that sense of self accomplishment again, they’ll jump into washing dishes.  They recognize that it doesn’t matter what we do (washing dishes, really???) it is that we do it the best we can, step by step, all the way through to the last step of appreciating the results that fuels their drive.   The desire to accomplish starts the drive that builds self value, the appreciation of the results cements that self value.

Maybe our earlier generations had this automatically built into our lifestyles, but that is definitely not so today for many youth.  Most of their activities are now centered around technology, where it may be easy to understand what needs to get done, but harder to feel the accomplishment from doing it.  I don’t think technology can teach drive, no matter how well structured, you have to obtain a tangible sense of self accomplishment before you can build enough self value to have your own drive.

From the inside out

wonton soup, baked lumpia, potstickers, bao

My favorite class with our students is our silent class.  Music + lots of handwork like folding = self accomplishment. Students don’t think they are going to like working without talking to each other, but after awhile, all of a sudden we are working together seamlessly.  Flow. Fully Alive.  There are many terms for this. This week in about 30 minutes per class, we folded over 400 dumplings (4 different kinds). Wow.

The bigger wow is for them is when they begin sensing that learning isn’t all about being given doses of information to digest through powerpoint presentations and lecture, from the outside in – learning happens much more quickly when it comes from the other direction -from inside the student outwards, from the inside out – and it is a lot more interesting and satisfying.

Now some people might tell you that we can’t regularly teach in this way – particularly if you have more than 8 students per adult, it is extremely difficult and requires a lot more preparation.  They might also tell you that the teenage brain doesn’t have that kind of wiring quite yet – that the synapse development, connecting our brains many file boxes, sparking the “go to” not the “receive from” is just starting to happen.  Still, I see my students being pretty resilient, and snapping to this quickly.  It could be because the desire to work and work around our common element – food – is also there. But it is clear that working in this way is a completely foreign feeling to them, and at the same time, it feels right.  95% of my students want to work silently more and build this focus and awareness.

There are other factors too. Life is hectic, noisy and distracting.  But we need to share experiences more with our students, not just talk about them to our young people and expect them to understand. We need to practice how to access this awareness and choice so that they use it to learn anything – from the inside out.

Thanksgiving Bliss

Thanksgiving Bliss = preparing and serving a Thanksgiving meal to 200 of our closest classmates and teachers, most of whom I have a feeling skipped breakfast.  But it was a special moment to watch our Culinary Arts students roll with the last minute changes and crowds of people wondering what was going to happen next. Lately I’ve been noticing this “what will happen next state” as not only the justifiable state of mind of a teenager, but also the state of mind for most of us in today’s world.  Adaptability is now more important an attribute to have under one’s belt than ever before.  Our Culinary Arts students showed how well they can adapt, and with eagerness.

Some quotes from them as they were serving:

“I want to do this for real”

“I love the smiles from people when you give them something good to eat.”

All that and more. There was a great write up in the San Francisco Chronicle about our program – THANK YOU EVERYONE who helped make that happen!  As a result, we are now getting an increased interest in our job shadowing/ internship program from restaurants, hotels and caterers, which is very exciting.  Now if only we can adapt as quickly as our students!


Folding Phyllo

I remember the second half of the 3rd quarter from last year.  The weather isn’t the only dampening thing in life, and you can sense struggle in many people’s lives.  But the students themselves stay resilient in a way too, looking for more to do.  A student quietly requested another silent class, his tone sounded like he wanted “to get things done.”   Another mentioned the bastilla we had made at the beginning of the quarter.  I love how the students really do seem to know what the next step should be.

We folded a variety of phyllo triangles:  a spanikopita filling (spinach & feta), a sweet potato samosa like filling & classic baklava “mini” triangles.  It was very satisfying to see the number of triangles that resulted.
The next day we baked them off and enjoyed our samplings, with more than enough to share.
Avglemeno Soup, Phyllo Triangles, Apple-Fennel-Radish Salad

Week 2: Let’s get chopping.

What I love about our classes is that underneath the mellow exterior, high schoolers really are active people.  And many have chosen our class because they don’t want to sit at a desk, they want to come in and work (although tasting the results is certainly an excellent secondary incentive).
But what do you do with 40 students who want to learn how to chop? Yes, onions are the classic practice chopping item, just having roughly 20 students at a time chopping onions is, well, painful.  This time we used carrots and leeks to make a super simple carrot soup to go with our North African favorite: Chicken Bastilla — and I was reminded that 25 pounds of chopped carrots does indeed make at least 4 gallons of carrot soup.  Gulp!

Then came the next question, as we were plating:  What does “garnish” mean?  So we got into garnish.

Carrot soup with chermoula, cilantro and yoghurt cream, individual bastilla pies, strawberry mango lassi.

"Silence is the Golden Key…"

…a quote from one of our students this week. We forget that life has become increasingly noisy and distractive. And we noticed noisy and distractive class habits developing already in this second week of the quarter. “What are we going to make today?”  and other questions were becoming conversational ice-breakers, and it was easier to stop and talk with friends, or ask where something was, rather than applying one’s self to the task on hand.   This is a default human tendency in general that I’ve seen in some of my most qualified new employees too.

In the workplace, conversation and communication can be two very different things and we were struggling with how to teach this in an active classroom (with sharp knives and hot surfaces).  Requesting students to read a prep list wasn’t the answer either.  Not only that, what if our students started asking questions non-stop while on a job shadow in a restaurant?  That would not work.

So one day this week, we had a silent class.  To make it more playful, we added music (thank you Greg, for the great playlist) and had a few instructional tent cards to provide lead in.  We kept the tasks simple and safe, rolling dumplings, and were amazed by the efficiency and togetherness that the students created.

Twenty minutes later, we had over 200 dumplings and a room full of focus.  I almost cried.  Here are some of the quotes from the students:
“I think working silently is fun and you have to pay attention a lot.  It teaches you too because of your surroundings.  Working silently is an effective way to get the job done because there isn’t as many distractions, we should do this more.”
“It let us focus on the task at hand and I enjoyed it.”
“I felt this is nice.  Everyone can learn more things in the class and nobody is talking.”
It was amazing to understand how many students really appreciated the experience.  It may require more planning, but we could tell there was a new sense of awareness in the room, one that they want to develop further as much as we do.
The next day?  It was a typical, crazy Friday, that we turned into a standing Asian Noodle Bar.  

Chicken Potstickers
Won Ton Soup with Vegetarian Wonton
Fresh Spring Rolls with Two Dipping Sauces
It got noisy, but we all started together more on the same page than ever before – and we cleaned and put away more than 80 dishes in 5 minutes – now that is focused work!

Economic Units And Humans

This is our economic unit of vegetarian maki sushi, 25 cents per piece, before overhead.  Not bad for our first time on the mat.
It is an interesting time to apply reality in economics to the classroom.  We thought we would coordinate with the economics class and figure out how much each individual piece of something we make might cost (to keep things simple we added food and labor costs together, ignoring overhead and things like service taxes).
We warmed up on sushi in our first class and then for the combined class, used potstickers as an economic unit of study.  Needless to say our combined class was fun, even tasty, but it was not what I would call a controlled environment.  Notice no pictures of potstickers (and note to self: do not combine 2 classes of hungry teenagers right before lunch and cook great smelling food that can be eaten with the fingers).
I often get questions on food served in school;  since we teach our Culinary Arts class in the cafeteria, it is a natural question and a tough one to respond to.  We all want better.  It is difficult to display acceptance for something we are all quietly (or less quietly) ashamed of.  And we know its economic unit, how much it costs ($2.74 per student, give or take a few cents).
Now it looks like I’m becoming an economic unit, measured to be cut.  And so is my boss. And my principal. And our Spanish teacher. And our wellness counselor.  With this first round of cuts, 482 teachers and 163 administrators for SFUSD received provisional notices that our services are not required.  I feel a little bit like that end piece of sushi that might need to be trimmed off and thrown away.  None of us have been fired yet, but the problem is big enough where the only thing that is known is that this is the safest measure to take.
Most of us notice-receivers probably think that our individual situations don’t justify this action– my reasoning is because my principal, myself and my CTE boss created this class and got this position written.  We see this class actively engage students every day in hands on learning.  The results have been positive enough that we were also recently told that my position will remain written in. And now with these layoffs, it is possible someone else could take this position over because I am the new kid on the block.  In a way it sounds safe and fair.  Just like pre-portioned meals in nice, neat, plastic sealed packets.
I’m not writing this with bitterness, we are facing a big, nasty-no-matter-how-you-slice-it-problem.  Culinary Arts the way we teach it here is an elective class I’m passionate about ( I am not doing it for the money, believe me), but if there really is no money, I can’t expect to take precedence over core classes and services that are also being cut – or to keep my job over someone else who has been here longer and is qualified.  At this point, I still hope better learning doesn’t get sacrificed with the cutting, portioning, slicing and dicing – it is hard to see how it won’t.
Our world is not an economic unit.  We know this after our financial crisis came to the forefront.  We’ve tried to make it so, with our justifications for requiring more efficiency and more numbers to make more profit and our willingness to turn around and let those numbers guide us and our ethics. We see how it has created problems on every level, from bank bankruptcies to school food.
Our world is human.  We need to teach our children how to be humans.  How to not be swayed off their work by the hundreds of text messages (think 300-600) our average student gets daily.  We need to focus on how to connect with our students in this commerce driven, passive and distracting world we have created for them and help them actively understand that you can think for yourself and that you can think enough of yourself to take pride in everything you do. And to our adults, we need to connect with them to help them understand how having our state reduce its educational funding to the lowest amount of money spent per child in the country is something we really can be ashamed of – more than the $2.74 meals served to our students everyday.