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New York City Housing Authority Vocational Cooking Classes for Teens

April 25, 2011  • 

With support from Rachael Ray and Yum-o!, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) launched cooking classes last summer in partnership with The Sylvia Center and Children’s Aid Society to help young people develop cooking skills, become conscientious consumers and make healthier food choices. This spring, NYCHA started a new job readiness program with The Sylvia Center specifically for youth ages 14-20 that not only promotes healthy nutrition, but also introduces food service and culinary arts as potential career paths.

Only three weeks into this new program, the energy meter is still running high. The teen chefs have gone from never peeling or cutting an onion to perfecting the technique of roasting. This week, they made Rachael’s Citrus Roasted Chicken and made their own vinaigrettes for salads – not just one, but two, one classic and one creamy.

"’Focused’" best describes these energetic young chefs," observes The Sylvia Center’s Director of Education and Learning Strategies, Hollie Greene. "This is not to say that the energy doesn’t translate into a lot of talking and joking from time to time, and even some unruly behavior, but the fact they are having fun says it all – learning to cook can be a joyful experience for teens. In their first class, they learned skills any culinary student would learn and continue to practice for their careers – how to peel a vegetable, square it so you can make planks, batons, dice and even a julienne cut."

By Week 2, the teens were already at the stove practicing their skills sautéing vegetables for their rainbow veggie frittata. Some students even discovered new vegetables! "You can eat that orange bell pepper raw?" was followed by, "Wow, that’s sweet!" Working in smaller teams, the teens learned everything about eggs – how to hard boil them and make deviled eggs, how to make soft scrambled eggs, how to make a frittata and how to make a scrumptious chocolate and strawberry bread pudding.

"Each class we also learn life lessons," says Hollie. "We find that we need to remind students the importance of being on time, as this will translate to success in jobs whether in the culinary industry or other roles. Most importantly, we are reminded that trying new foods can be scary. Our rule is you must try everything, but that it’s okay if you don’t like it. We just tell students, ‘Don’t yuck my yum!’ As young chefs, we try to use words that describe what we could do to make the dish better."

Now six weeks into the program, the NYCHA Drew Hamilton kitchen has turned into a culinary transporter of sorts – each week, the students get a chance to travel and experience far away lands, produce and spices through the food they are preparing. Recently, their food adventures took them to France, Italy and Morocco!

Week 4 introduced the budding chefs to sauce-making. Their knowledge was put into practice not only in pan sauces, but also in spicy Dijon honey mustard sauce for homemade chicken tenders and in Rachael’s Balsamic Butter sauce for roasted asparagus. Every student had a turn to be at the stove, pan searing their chicken cutlet and making their own sauce – sautéing shallots, scooping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan and reducing chicken stock, adding lemon juice, tarragon and small dab of cold butter at the end. It was like a taste of Dijon, France, right in their kitchen! "Doug, one of the Monday night students, was in charge of ‘fixing’ our pan sauces we’d combined at the end," reflects Hollie. "It was a bit salty when Doug took the helm, but by adding some more acid, a little dab of cold butter and some more fresh minced tarragon, he was able to round out those flavors to make a great pan sauce – practicing one of the mottos we aim to teach any student: We are smarter than the food, so let’s make the food work for us!" It is the students’ pride in their sense of accomplishment that makes the food taste all the better. "Is this some good food we are cooking or what?" exclaimed Will, one of the students who wants to go to culinary school, as he brought the Center Director, Renee, a plate of the food he’d prepared.

In Week 5, the teen chefs were immersed in all things Italian, including a cheese tasting and the San Marzano tomatoes for their homemade sauce. The teens are not only creative in the way they mold and decorate their pizzas, but also adventurous. "My pizza is shaped like Africa," said Hanaia, as she proudly began decorating her newly shaped pizza dough.

During the cheese tasting, the students, while hesitant, were up for the earthy and stinky challenge of fresh mozzarella, parmesan, Talleggio, Fontina and even Gorgonzola! "Why does that cheese have the green coloring?," one student asked about Gorgonzola. "Wow, that is strong!" exclaimed many of the students as they tried real parmesan for the first time. "If the cheeses had been introduced earlier in the program," notes Hollie, "most of the teens would have politely declined to participate, but as they work more and more as a team, they have built trust in stepping out onto this new food terrain together – even with laughs and funny faces to disguise their pleasure in discovering new favorite foods like fontina cheese."

As Week 6 arrived, the instructors asked, "Can you smell the rich spices, see the vibrant colors, hear a new language? That’s how we know we’re in a different land – welcome to Morocco!" As part of the curriculum, the program instructors searched for a seasoned chef to come in to teach two of the classes and mentor students, answering their questions about the industry and what it’s really like to work the line or go to culinary school. They hit the jackpot with Chef Michelle Spiegel, who generously donated her time to introduce the students to the cuisine of Morocco, with its new spices and herbs, couscous as a new grain, a flavorful Moroccan stew and beautiful poached pears for dessert. Michelle is a former senior instructor with the French Culinary Institute and a thirteen-year veteran with experience in some of the best restaurants and catering companies in New York City. Michelle spoke to the students from the front line, sharing her knowledge from what kitchens look for when they hire to why chefs wear whites. Attention was high when Chef Michelle shared her collection of knives and explained why chefs need different tools for the jobs in the kitchen, and she stressed the importance of teamwork and being organized several times, reinforcing the lessons the teens have learned with a real world perspective.

The students capped off Week 6 with pride by signing and giving Chef Michelle their gift to her, a book on Moroccan cuisine – a small detail added into their normal classroom flow but an important lesson in the importance of a simple thank you.

The program is on a break now due to the public school holidays, but will finish strong in May. There will be two more weeks of classes, a field trip to the Inwood Farmer’s Market and hopefully a tour with Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster. Yum-o! will continue to check in with our young chefs over the course of the program. Stay tuned!