Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might remember an article I wrote for the Jamie Oliver’s website talking about the life lessons my students are learning in cooking club. Well today I’m proud to share a few stories about my students getting out and about in the world of food beyond the science lab where we cook each Monday. Learning life lessons through food. And proving that little boys don’t always join the cooking club just so they can make delicious snacks (though that’s a big bonus!).
Last month when I was in Montreal for the weekend, Mr. Neil played roving reporter for eat. live. travel. write. and went out on the town on a Friday evening to see one of Les Petits Chefs in action (Ben (aged 10) hosted a Friday night “open mic” style drop-in dinner at The Depanneur). After all, the Petits Chefs crew supply Neil with a lunch most weeks – so he thought it would be nice to express his appreciation in person. Here’s his thoughts on what sounds like an amazing experience for everyone (and I hope it’s not the last time Ben hosts a pop-up dinner!).
“The dinner slot starts early, and as my friend and I walked in shortly after 6pm, the place was already packed! Ben was busy at the stove, barely visible through great clouds of steam as he was preparing his potato gnocchi to order. With mum Julie as sous chef (and expeditor), the pace was somewhat frenetic…but all seemed under control. Portions were measured out in individual bags for final cooking, the sauce was nearly ready, and extra toppings (ricotta or pancetta – or both for Mr. Neil) at the ready.
Ben had great family support, and I managed to chat with mum (between called out instructions from chef) and a very proud nonna, among others. Two favourite moments. First, when a somewhat regular of the Friday Night Drop-in Dinners came and sat next to me at the window, the only spare inch in the place, and said “Wow, it’s busy tonight! Who’s cooking?” Second, when six very young girls who could barely see over the prep counter were all watching Ben, waiting for food. So young, and already he has groupies! As the slightly flustered owner said to me, “We don’t normally get everyone within the first 30 minutes of the evening!” He did a great job keeping up with orders, and within 90 minutes Ben was sold out. Complet. If you came late, you went home hungry. Congratulations, Ben – and thanks for the tasty dinner!”
Could I have BEEN more proud of Ben as Neil sent me texts and photos throughout the dinner? Nope, I don’t think so. I don’t know that *I* could pull off gnocchi from scratch for 30 people – yet this 10 year-old pulled it off seamlessly with a confidence most adults wouldn’t have under the same circumstances (and one that I, as his teacher, have been so happy to see develop over the past few years). Apparently he would do it again. But with something a little less labour -intensive, like a stew I’d be first in line, Ben!
Moving away from food preparation and onto that general interest in food I try to share with my students… Back in October, two of my Petits Chefs, Richard and Russell (and their mums) had the great fortune to be guests of The Cookbook Store at a talk by two of the world’s most renowned chefs, Alex Atala of restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco, who appeared together in Toronto in October for what was a truly engaging discussion about food.
I’m always interested to see which boys are in cooking club because they like the eating part (and that’s totally ok, don’t get me wrong!) and who is there because they are truly interested in food and cooking. More and more boys I find are actually interested in learning about food, not just the eating – a point proven by the great response to Alison from The Cookbook Store offering these tickets up to two boys and their mums. I think we (the boys’ mums and I) were all very curious to see how the boys would react to what can only be described as a presentation geared towards adult food enthusiasts.
Russell’s mum, Alison, said: “When Mardi offered me and Russell tickets to hear Chefs Atala and Patterson, I jumped at the chance to attend. I was very curious to see how Russell would enjoy an adult-oriented talk about cooking and food. Our conversation went something like this: “Will we be cooking, Mom?” No. “Will we get to eat anything?” No. “So what will we be doing there?”. Listening. Well I’m pleased to say that Russell really is into food – not just cooking and eating it, as he does each Monday with Les Petits Chefs. He really enjoyed hearing the passion the chefs had for their unique ingredients, for how their dishes tasted, and the respect they have for the planet.” As for Russell himself, well he told me later that his “favourite part of the talk was seeing all the different foods they ate [in Brazil] and I enjoyed how [Alex] said how the ants tasted like lemongrass.” Little boys and ants. There’s clearly a fascination – Russell wanted to know if our everyday ants are what Alex Atala cooks with. We weren’t sure but we didn’t think so!
Richard, when asked for his thoughts on the talk told me: “I really liked when Alex Atala described the gift of food boxes he had given to a local tribe in Amazonas and that when he came back to visit he saw garbage and wrappers everywhere. It turned out it was his fault because the tribe was used to throwing out their food wrappers, which to them are fish skins and fruit peels. It’s so different there. Most of our food comes pre-killed and gutted and wrapped. Both our foods come packaged but when they throw theirs away it goes back to the earth. I thought about how our wrappers and boxes must pile up in dumps somewhere. Their way is much better for the earth.”
(so, right, you don’t need to hear my thoughts on the matter now. Out of the mouths of babes, as they say!) Richard was also pretty entertained by Daniel’s description of a pig’s feet and oyster dish and throwing it together and not knowing what on earth to call it and turned many a head when, during question time, he asked Daniel Patterson whether his inspiration came from his multi-cultural upbringing. I was very proud of both boys – they heard information that I didn’t pick up on (it’s interesting what they choose to retain) and proved to both me and their mums that it’s not just about the eating in cooking club!
Last month, The Cookbook Store generously offered four Petits Chefs and their mums the opportunity to hear René Redzepi from Noma speak. As you can imagine, that was a popular one and the boys who attended ranged in age from 10-12. Definitely not the target audience but I think you’ll agree these boys have atypical interests! I was curious to see how they reacted to René, who was reading from his journal – part of the three book collection A Work in Progress.
Former Petit Chef, Michael, who attended the talk with his mum, wrote this: “Thanks to Mlle Michels, my mom and I got a chance to see the chef and owner of the world’s best restaurant. His name is René Redzepi and he lives in Denmark. He was funny and very open to sharing his ideas about his cooking skills and how he runs his restaurant. One interesting part was that he read from his diary about everything that happened in his restaurant over a year. He was very open and shared what he had written in his diary, including a bunch of profane language. Believe it or not, some of his recipes include ants, and another uses pigs ears! He was a really neat guy and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see such an interesting man.”
(again with the ants – and this time they showed René foraging for ants)
Oh and yes, the language? It definitely wasn’t rated G but as all their mums told me “Nothing he hasn’t heard before!” And actually they were all pretty mature about it. René, on learning that I was bringing 4 students to hear him, apologized in person to me though we decided that explaining a few bad words to the boys was probably easier than explaining our mayor’s behaviour of late… (Yes, my life is surreal when I’m chatting to one of the best chefs in the world about Rob Ford!)
Josh agreed with me that the talk was “a little radical” and that René was a cool guy. Ben, aged 10, had this to say: “It was amazing and inspirational. And it was just really fun to watch him talk about his work.” Wow, “inspirational”? He went on to add “I never knew that you could be number 1 restaurant in the world and almost go bankrupt.” Definitely some valuable life lessons there. Nicholas, also 10, told his mum: “I really enjoyed the René Redzepi presentation. I think it was cool how he kept a journal that is now being read by so many people and inspiring them. I also think that it is neat that a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark could win best restaurant in the world three times in a row. I find it fascinating that the seasons influence the menu at noma, and I liked learning about Danish produce that we don’t have in Canada. I never thought any one would eat insects or put them on the menu at a restaurant!”
I personally loved the idea that the boys saw this man, at the top of his game in a tough career, admitting weakness and working through a difficult time through journalling. Speaking of inspiring, I can’t think of a better message for young boys than hearing about a man working through challenges by writing (that would be the teacher in me!). In any case, I was so happy the boys were able to attend these talks – thank you so much The Cookbook Store for helping me feed my students’ keen interest in food and cooking.
Disclosure: I attended the Alex Atala/ Daniel Patterson talk as a guest of The Cookbook Store. My students and their mums attended both the Atala/Patterson and Redzepi talks as guests of The Cookbook Store. I was not under any obligation to write about these events, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions 100% mine, Neil’s and the boys and their mums!
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