“Why is Mlle Michels under the table?” I hear one of the boys asking… It’s 7.00pm on Tuesday May 15th 2012. I am scrambling about on the floor of the school dining hall, trying to figure out how to connect 20 individual hot plates to a few different circuit breakers so they won’t simultaneously shut down. This is, of course, something that we have practiced earlier in the day. But not for a sustained period of time so of course, once people are at the crucial point of the cooking lesson – you know, the cooking part (!) – the hotplates, one by one, begin to shut down… Strangely, the room of 60 people is actually fairly calm. The only person stressing out, it seems, is me! This is the price one pays for being overly ambitious.
Ambitious. It’s a word often used to describe some of the projects I take on. I have high standards for myself. I have high standards for my students. And with kids, if you set the bar high, I find they always come up to meet you there. In the classroom and out. I figure if kids don’t know something is supposed to be difficult, they will not approach it as such and just kind of get on with it. I guess a little of this “can do” attitude has rubbed off on me in the past few years because there are things I take on that I don’t quite think about in terms of how overwhelming they might seem to others until I am in the thick of them and there’s no turning back. Case in point: cooking club each week. I’m often told “I don’t know how you do it” but actually for me, it’s not a stressful part of my week at all – well, maybe trying to get the boys out the door with their Tupperwares in tow by 4.01pm at the latest is a little stressful but on the whole it’s an hour of the week that I really treasure – the part of the week where they can see me as a normal person with a passion for food, not “just the French teacher”.
So when I became a Food Revolution Day Ambassador for Toronto, it was obvious that I would involve the boys in some way (Food Revolution Day is May 19th – which just happens to fall on a long weekend for most of Canada so people were encouraged to host events in the week leading up to the Day). And the more I thought about it, the more a “pass it on” cooking class seemed like a great idea – boys teaching their parents to cook a dish from scratch, then we would all sit down to enjoy it together. I thought that sounded like a GREAT way to honour this first Food Revolution Day – what better way to consolidate newly-acquired skills than to teach someone else, right? It’s a busy time of year so I wasn’t sure what the turnout would be. After only a few hours I had a number of families already on board and I moved the “class” out of our regular science lab into the dining hall. By the time the day rolled around, we had 18 boys signed up, many of them with 2-3 people in tow for a total of around 60 people. Nooooo problem, right? I mean, that’s just a regular cooking club times 4, right? I mean, I had no problem with that.
I enlisted fellow Food Revolution Ambassador, Adell Shneer, to come and be my co-chef. I asked my regular cooking club assistant, Michelle, to come and help out and my student teacher, Kim, was more than happy to help too. A couple of colleagues would be coming with their Petits Chefs – I was all set. I was fortunate enough to have the full support of my school admin, who also authorised the kitchen to order the ingredients in for me . We’d make chicken Tikka Masala – a recipe I have made before in cooking club with great success – with some vegetarian options (you know, that famous Indian dish “Chick Pea Tikka Masala” LOL!) and Adell and I would walk the boys through the recipe (including making the paste from scratch!) step by step. After each step the boys would return to their stations to teach their parents how to prepare and cook the ingredients. Easy peasy!
What unfolded was a very special evening for everyone. The boys were SO excited – I had so many of them lining up to help after school. By the time the parents arrived, we were all set up to go, with some mise en place already taken care of, aprons donned, nametags written and hands washed. And guess what? Today you get to see the Petits Chefs’ faces – not just their hands! I am so proud of these guys that I asked permission to post their pictures – I figured you would like to see the faces behind the hands Sadly there are not as many pictures as I would like – but it was definitely an evening to live in the moment, not behind the lens…
So yeah, basically, we came, we cooked, we laughed, we ate. But it was so much more than that. I am truly overcome by the boys’ and their parents’ kindness, generosity and patience and by everyone’s enthusiasm and resilience in the face of electrical circuits that won’t cooperate. Watching everyone as they worked together to sort out how to cook on less than the ideal number of burners was wonderful and it really hit home to me what this week is all about – food and the community we build around it. Yeah, even when I was crawling around the floor trying to sort out the electrics!
No-one actually freaked out about the hotplate issue – I think I was the most concerned. Everyone just got on with it and found other places to plug in, or shared pots with other groups. Very matter of factly, like they do this every day.
After I had stacked most of the dirty dishes in the dishwasher in a separate room, I re-entered the dining hall – greeted by the wonderful smell of the ready-to-eat curries. The hungry boys had set the tables – seriously better than any 5 star restaurant.
One definite highlight for me was watching the families sitting down to eat together. We’re all so busy these days it’s definitely a rarity for many families. Seeing so many mums and dads enjoying a meal with their kids and friends, well it doesn’t get much better than that.
So yeah, whilst there was a minute (ok a few – ok maybe 30) of panic (by me), as I looked around, I slowly realised that this evening was what the Food Revolution is all about. Bringing families together over food. Real food.
With great thanks to Steve, Catherine, Karen, Corey and the kitchen staff, Carlos, Richard, Jaime and all the maintenance staff, Michelle, Kim, Janet, Anna, Adell and all of the Petits Chefs and their parents. Go team!
* Food Revolution Day is May 19th – What are YOU doing to stand up for REAL FOOD? Check out the Food Revolution Day website here.
** You might like to read: Learning life skills in an afterschool cooking club and Do kids need their own cookbooks? – two articles I wrote for Jamie Oliver.com
*** It’s my THIRD blog birthday! To celebrate, I am giving away a copy of Wini Moranville’s “Bonne Femme Cookbook” – open to anyone, anywhere. Contest closes on Tuesday May 22nd at 9pm EST and winner will be announced Wednesday May 23rd. Good luck!