"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.

Filling The Table

Tiramisu can be a good incentive, even if it has no rum or zabliogne egg base in the filling.   We wanted to work on teamwork and the best way seemed to be to throw in as many cooking tasks in a short period of time  as we could – and select a menu that would appeal to a wide audience. A little bit of a mad house, but restaurants regularly have these moments.  What was great is that everything came together and you could sense the pride in our meal:

  • Tri-color Lasagne with Housemade Pasta & Sauces
  • Vegetarian Tuscan Soup
  • Mock-Caeser Salad
  • Tiramisu

What also came out of it was that first glimmer of hospitality.  We sent a plate up to our main office and yes, the positive cheers from up there hit home. Immediate sense of accomplishment and more.

When someone likes your food, it goes straight to your heart, right next to how it feels when someone cooks for you.  It can hook you into becoming a chef or loving to work in a restaurant.  But even if it doesn’t, everyone deserves to have and then in turn be able to create these moments.

 

Pride of Work

It is “the how” not “the what” that matters.
Meet romanesco.  It has been around since at least the 16th century.  A little more tender than brocolli, with a fresh, green, cauliflower-like flavor, it is better tossed in olive oil, garlic & salt and then roasted instead of being boiled.  We like it for its logarithmic or fractal spirals.  Nature should be pretty proud of this one.
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Toward the end of the semester we get familiar enough with one another that it is hard not to spend social time and we find ourselves getting less and less done.   The challenge of getting past “the what” in the activity and getting into  “the how” becomes pretty apparent.  Especially when it comes to cleaning, we find clusters of people in corners of the room talking or texting and perspective disappears.

chopping onions and leek tops for vegetable stock.



It is easy when looking for a job to center around what one can do.  But what ends up mattering more to an employer is how you will work, much more than what you can do.  Today we started class talking about pride of work, being proud of how you work as a way to gaining the kind of experience and work ethic that is useful in any job.  When it comes to the less glamorous tasks such as cleaning, once one student starts jumping in, the rest soon realize it is not a big deal and cleaning as a group goes pretty quickly.  Luckily, with cooking in class we have the bonus that they can see and taste the results of their labor — a quicker connection to that kind of pride in how we work, a tangible chance to get to a sense of accomplishment. Pride of work comes before much of what we think needs to happen to get a job and the only way to get it is to do something, anything and to do it the best you can.

Gathering Recipes

This week, instead of telling my students what we were going to make, I let them take a turn. We sat around a cluster of cookbooks based on soul food, cajun and creole cooking on Monday, with my thinking we would use this opportunity to get into menu and “prep” planning.  It turned into the unexpected, which is one of the reasons I was eager to jump into this job in the first place.

The students not only learned that we can’t throw it all into a bowl on the last day and have everything we want ready to eat, but more importantly, that all this wonderful cooking they have wanted to do takes experience and attention to detail too.  It brought up the subject on how much of authentic American cooking is at risk of being lost. We have so many recipes, but which one shows you how to make your own family’s version?  You have to find out from your own family.  One student in my 3rd period class took the reins on documenting a recipe with her family’s real macaroni and cheese, so we documented it while we made it.  It allowed us to get beyond the “oh you just make it” and show ourselves the kind of detail one needs to know to effectively pass along a family recipe.  When she saw the recipe in print (she chose the name “Smackin’ Mac N’ Cheese”), you could see her pride.  It helped them also realize that while the exact measurements are not that important all the time, understanding how everything goes together so that it will turn out the way you want, is important. And that  it is worth documenting.

For my 2nd period class, we were again lucky, this time with one of our volunteers – she grew up in Louisiana and when she saw the Jambalaya recipe we chose, she offered to write up her own family recipe. Pure gold!  Again, very simple, but it helped the students recognize the value of each of our family’s heritage and that sharing recipes is a common ground to relate to people we don’t even know very well.

The meals?  They came out well, perhaps not as well as if grandma cooked them, but this time, that made it even better.

Trust

Tuesday, one of our students had her wallet taken in class. It is not the first time there has been a theft, but it is the first time in awhile. The wallet was found later, without the money, which helped her a little, since there were IDs and pictures more important to her in that wallet. The trust, however, has been broken again.
We are in our 12th week of class, and I’ve gotten to know and like the students, even (or especially) the ones who sometimes get defiant and tell me directly why they are acting that way. They are usually right on in their reasoning and just need guidance on a better way to express it. But trust is so important in any workplace. A restaurant, probably most enterprises, can’t survive without a measure of trust – it is what allows a team to work together and create more than they could individually. It allows the love to come out. You are trusting me to supply you with a good meal, and I am trusting you to enjoy it, see the value in it and to pay for it so I can keep supplying good meals and a good place to be.
We all want more. But the way to more is not in the taking, it is in the giving. I might be getting all lofty-sounding, but experience tells us this and we feel this when we are actively working in a group and contributing – we can feel the fun. Trust is where it starts.
So our first fundraiser is for our class to recoup the loss. I’ve put the piggy bank out and we will see what happens.

Squash Time: Week 11

“I didn’t know squash could taste this good!” – 2nd period student

 
It is hard to admit that for years, the only autumn squash I handled was the canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie. But, desperate for my own kids to start eating vegetables, I snuck spaghetti squash into the tomato sauce one night – they took it like an April fool’s day joke, but ate it anyway, glaring at me and the injustice of it all. With a sigh, I still wish I had warned them, although the looks on their faces were a priceless payment for the experiment.
Then my sister roasted up butternut squash along with potatoes, olive oil, salt & rosemary one night. That was it, I was hooked for good. Now I watchfully wait for those butternut squashes to appear again every year. My kids do too, I’m happy to say.
For class, we made a classic butternut squash soup, baked it up with onions, garlic, a few apples and herbs. Pureed it and added water where needed and a touch of cream. Drizzled a little sage oil on top for accent (made by the students with the mortar & pestle) and then a little sour cream thinned with cream. And yes, we tried the spaghetti squash too (in full disclosure this time!) – and some liked it, others were politely quiet about tasting it. Group respect in tasting takes practice like everything else and warning ahead of time to curb negative responses helps keep the respect.
Prep-wise, it is important to halve the squashes with the students closely, and break down the squash to “hand size pieces” for peeling more easily. Butternut squash is a little more tender than some of the heritage squashes that are re-appearing, but it is still a hard-skinned item to maneuver. I wouldn’t start doing this until you are comfortable with your student’s awareness with knife handling and that they have developed a willingness to wait and observe while you finish the tougher task for the class, knowing that their turn is ahead.

Grains and Beans Overview: Week 10

 

I wasn’t sure how to tackle the world of grains and beans, but it was time to get a sense of the depth and breadth of it.   So we tried a variety of things:
a) We lined up a variety of grains and beans and poured them into origami boxes we had folded together and labeled, then looked at the similarities and differences.  Much discussion on grain vs. bean/legume and the ways that many cultures around the world eat a combination of beans and grains which nutritionally results in more complete proteins.

Origami in a culinary arts class? We needed some hands-on activity, and origami is great as long as you are prepared for first timers.  Often there will be a hidden origami pro in one student which can help too.  I’m already running into students being organized enough to be able to produce a lot of output and it gets challenging to find ways to keep their hands busy without ending up with a 5 gallon bucket of chopped carrots after half an hour.  I was hoping origami would help with this.  It can when you have enough “buy in” and the project is doable.  Having a cutting project (such as trimming parchment circles for steaming baskets) is also good, but you need pairs of scissors.

b) We made hot cereal.  Many students have never had whole oats before and it is close enough in flavor to rolled oats that they could compare and contrast – and several asked when we could have hot oats again.

c) We put things away and organized a grain and bean shelf.  I love watching the discovery that happens as someone takes ownership of their project.  In the picture at right of some of our jars, this student’s labeling was essentially correct – it is a wonderful reminder about experience, generations and our changing lifestyles.

d) We got into hummus and pita bread. As long as you have a baking stone and get it up to temperature, pita bread is more satisfying than flat bread because it bakes quickly and watching it puff up in the oven is immediately gratifying.  Roll the circles of dough out paper thin for this result. There was  more discovery as students blended or pounded the “seeds” of chick peas into a familiar spread with garlic, sesame tahini and lemon juice.  Many had never tasted it before and we compared it to classic tomato sauce on our freshly baked pita.  We had to make more pita dough for later in the week.

e) Finale Friday: hummus with pita, chicken soup with quinoa, tabouleh (bulgar is an easy grain to make in the class room), and an onion-pepper relish.  It was a successful meal.

Next time?  This could be broken down into more lengthy projects but for our class these quick glimmers were good ways to expose without over saturating.  It helped keep the curiosity alive in the room.