Worlds collide: food and French

Longtime readers will know a few things about me:

  1. I love to cook and bake.
  2. I love to teach others to cook and bake (in person and through my writing and photography).
  3. I love France.
  4. I love French food and the French language.
  5. I love to teach others about French food and how to speak the language.
  6. I love teaching kids to cook.
  7. I spend my days teaching kids how to speak French and how to cook. I even incorporate a little cooking into the French curriculum from time to time because, well, pourquoi pas?
  8. I spend my spare time teaching adults to cook, mostly French food.
  9. We have a house in France (that we rent as a holiday home, just saying….)
  10. I get to spend a lot of time in France.

I’d hope that any one (or more) of these things might come to mind when people think about this site and about what I do. For me, there is a common theme – well there are a few, but let’s focus on possibly the “achievement” I am most proud of: Look at all the things I love. Now look at all the things I do on a regular basis. See any crossover? Uh huh. I’m clever like that.

Somehow (well, a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck), I’ve managed to combine much of what I love (all the France-cooking stuff) with something I actually *have* to do (you know, my day job which pays the bills).  And when I get to write about that, well it’s everything I love (to do) all rolled into one.

I had cause to reflect on this last week as my Grade 6s completed a two term unit all about Haiti.  I created this unit back in 2010 when we were asked to write some letters to students at the St Vincent’s Center after the earthquake.  My school had a partnership with the Center and our chaplain thought it would be a nice gesture for students there to receive letters from similar-aged children. Six years later, we’re still writing to the children every year.

What started out as a simple letter-writing activity (which was actually quite complex since it’s completely different from digital communication) has turned into a full-blown unit of study spanning two terms in which we touch on geography, history and the culture of Haiti (in French, so it’s simplified to make it accessible for the boys).  We also work on a simple reader with comprehension and language activities. And hey, what’s a study of a foreign country without learning a bit about their food, right?

Parents of my students know that at some point their son will cook with me either in or out of French class.  By the time the boys get to Grade 6, I’ve been teaching most of them for 3 years and many of them have been in my cooking club every term since they started at the school (that’s 9 sessions of cooking club right there!).  Many of them are really interested in food. And actually most of them will be motivated by the promise of food at that age 😉

The premise for the Haitian food unit is that the boys research typical Haitian ingredients and dishes and choose a few that they would like to make (these are vetted by me to make sure they are do-able, since they always choose things like pork dishes that need to marinate for 12 hours etc…!). Then we do a little math to figure out how many ingredients we need for 24 portions of each dish, head to the supermarket to shop and the next day, we cook and eat the food together. Sounds so simple but it’s a fair bit of work, organization and coordination (sssh – I love all that stuff!). It’s also like skills. SO important.

This year’s unit was greatly enhanced by two factors. Actually two chefs. Daniel Holloway and José Andrés.

José Andrés? THE José Andrés? Yes, via the excellent PBS documentary, Undiscovered Haiti, which aired at the beginning of the school year. To help the boys understand more about this country that is so close but so very far from their everyday, I showed them the documentary during the first week of school. To say they were engaged is a huge understatement. Andrés is “convinced we can change the world through the power of food, and understand a culture by exploring what, when and how its people eat” and I loved that this documentary showed a very different side to Haiti than the one we are used to hearing about (and it was recommended by a colleague who just came from teaching in Haiti):

José experiences the authentic traditions and rituals of Haiti, from making cassava bread to midnight gatherings with vodou priests. He dives deep into Haiti’s natural beauty, taking you to ancient waterfalls and untouched coastlines. He hunts for land crabs and mythical mushrooms in its lush forests, and tastes local specialties on the bustling streets of Port-Au-Prince. We learn the history behind Haiti’s incredible historic sites like the Citadel and tour a 150-year-old rum factory.

I mean, if you were an 11 year-old boy you’d be right into all that, wouldn’t you? The boys picked up that Andrés was “enthusiastic” about the local rum sour drinks and by the end of the documentary, I was certain that this was all they would remember but their reflections beg to differ. “I learned that Haiti is a country full of joy and good food, not sadness” (paraphrasing here but every single boy wrote something along those lines).  This was an excellent introduction to the local ingredients and many times during the unit, we’d refer back to something we’d seen in that video. So powerful.

Our second “chef connection” came about via the magic of social media.  Last year, I tweeted about the wonderful food the boys had prepared and a friend responded, suggesting I contact Chef Daniel Holloway next time I was cooking Haitian as he might like to help. Trained in French cuisine with a Haitian connection (his partner is Haitian)?  What a perfect fit for a cooking session with the boys. As the time to get cooking drew closer, I was in touch with Chef Daniel, consulting with him about the menu (double checking the “authenticity” of some items and the “do-ability of others, vetoing recipes that called for alcohol and nuts) and planning our cooking session. The boys were SO excited.

Last Tuesday came and I approached the day with a bit of trepidation. It was a dress-down (no uniform) day at the school and we were down a few supervisors so the morning’s cooking activity definitely could have gone either way. But I’m convinced if you are passionate about something, that enthusiasm is infectious. And I know what a great activity this can be from previous years’ experience. Having Chef Daniel there to help out (he also brought his “real knife” kit to show the boys which won them over instantly!) was a huge bonus – being familiar with Haitian food and culture, he was able to answer so many of their questions as he worked with each group on their various dishes.

We ended up making five different things (yes, I may be a little crazy!) in just under 90 minutes – plantain chips, mango salad, beef patties, coconut sorbet and “pikliz” (basically pickled vegetables). We had a blast. We spoke some “franglais” (generally the other supervisors don’t speak French so the activity takes place mostly in English) and I was pleased to see the boys use a lot of French when they spoke about the ingredients.  Basically, we had a blast. We’re hugely grateful to Chef Daniel for his time last week. We learned so much and we can’t wait to welcome you back to our little lab/ kitchen again soon!

It was, in short, many things I love to do in one room: teaching, cooking, eating and French! And that’s my job! So very lucky!

Sour mocktails on eatlivetravelwrite.comTo cap off the week, we toasted our success the next day with some Sour Mocktails (dubbed “rumless rum sours”) – some sour flavours (lemon, lime) with a little sweet (grenadine, obviously not so authentic…) and a little heat from some ginger beer.  I let the boys mix their own, after showing them “ideal” proportions and it was, shall we say, interesting. Some of us (me included) need to work on our sweet to sour proportions. So they might not have been authentic but the boys had a blast. I reckon José Andrés might have enjoyed the class too 😉

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13 Responses to Worlds collide: food and French

  1. Katja of Skimbaco February 18, 2016 at 07:11 #

    I love how you have been able to mix all the things you love. I always keep thinking and telling about you to my children —- the boys you teach are so lucky to have a passionate educator like you. Must have been such a special morning for all of you – chefs included.

    • Mardi Michels February 26, 2016 at 10:54 #

      Thanks Katja, I absolutely love what I do and am so lucky! We did have a wonderful morning!

  2. Jamie February 18, 2016 at 07:30 #

    I’m just so in awe of everything you do and everything you make happen. What great luck these students have having you as a teacher… the food, the cooking lessons, the passion, and that you open up so many facets of the outside world that few kids get during their school years. I can’t but be sure that you have greatly inspired many of your students, once grown and out of school, to reach beyond the usual and experience things they might, in a normal school setting, never have even imagined!

    • Mardi Michels February 26, 2016 at 10:53 #

      Aw Jamie thanks so much. You’re a pretty big inspiration for me as well. I DO hope I inspire even a handful to take their knowledge (or food and French) beyond school.

  3. Denise February 18, 2016 at 13:47 #

    Mardi this is wonderful, and it makes me remember a conversation we had when you were here “the cream always rises to the top”. I love that you combine all your passions into educating young boys how to cook – such an important task that most people do not care about or feel is all that important. Women like you make all the difference in the world we live in!

    • Mardi Michels February 26, 2016 at 10:52 #

      Thanks Denise – I OFTEN think about our conversation about the cream rising to the top. Your comment means so much to me 🙂

  4. Geoff February 18, 2016 at 17:10 #

    Mardi this is a wonderful post – life affirming.
    The boys (LPCs) are so lucky but then, so are you to have the association with them. We are very proud of you.

    • Mardi Michels February 26, 2016 at 10:52 #

      Thanks so much. I learn a lot from them as well!

  5. Pam M February 18, 2016 at 21:03 #

    Congratulations Mardi, wonderful post, and yes, we are so proud of you and those boys are so lucky.

  6. Cakelaw February 19, 2016 at 05:37 #

    What a wonderful thing to do with your class – school was never like this for me!

    • Mardi Michels February 26, 2016 at 10:51 #

      Thanks, I try to make learning a language something that is alive and real, not just the conjugating and dictée I learned!


  1. Mardi Michels - trail blazing Jamie's Food Revolution - Maison Cupcake - May 20, 2016

    […] do) all rolled into one. Recently, my love of food and French and teaching collided beautifully in a culminating activity where my Grade 6 students cooked a Haitian meal together with a chef from Tor…. Way to make my day job and passions merge […]

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