Good Life

Eats & Drinks: Cooking lessons are key for kids

David Mansell tastes a vinaigrette salad dressing. Tony Sapia, owner of Gemelli Bakery, led a cooking class for students at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School May 26, 2015.
David Mansell tastes a vinaigrette salad dressing. Tony Sapia, owner of Gemelli Bakery, led a cooking class for students at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School May 26, 2015. CDT photo

The halls at Our Lady of Victory School had a decidedly breezy, end-of-the-school year feel as Principal Samantha Weakland escorted me down to the kitchen and gymnasium, where Tony Sapia from Gemelli Bakers was scheduled to do his cooking demo for the graduating eighth-grade class. Sapia had initiated the conversation about a cooking demo a year ago but it took a while to make it happen. And it took a miracle, but we were in the right place for that.

Many local schools are struggling to create dynamic wellness programs and to offer culinary nutrition opportunities in the schools these days. Family and consumer science classes have been virtually eliminated state-wide as districts struggle to provide the essentials. Those home economics classes of yore are gone, in favor of technology upgrades. Something had to give; and, really, shouldn’t children learn how to cook at home, with their family?

Theoretically, yes; but the fact that many families do very little cooking at home is common knowledge. According to a National Institutes of Health study published in 2013, only “slightly more than half spend any time cooking on a given day.” There are so many prepared food, fast food and restaurant options that it is a stalwart parent that doesn’t give in and just pick up something on the way home from work — or multiple items, to please all tastes. How will our children learn that cooking is not rocket science, demanding the complexity that they see on the Food Network? They must learn it one lesson at a time.

Sapia had an ambitious schedule for the demo:

Noon: prep station setup

12:15: volunteers arrive

12:30: kids arrive

12:35: introductions, game plan (count-off), sanitation, chef hats (write names)

12:40: split into groups, start cooking

1:10: start plating

1:25: tasting buffet

1:50: kids leave

2:00: bus pickup

2:25: cleanup

I felt a pang of disbelief when it was 11:55 a.m. and the Gemelli box truck was nowhere to be seen, but I said my prayers. Then Justin Turnipseed appeared in the office with a can-do air that was contagious. The chivalrous pastry chef from Gemelli Bakers helps Sapia with on-site events and in minutes wood smoke was billowing out of the chimney of the mobile pizza oven parked out back, and the contents of the truck were being hoisted to long tables on the side of the lunch room to create several work stations. Three parent volunteers, all mothers, appeared and donned aprons and stood at the ready.

When the students streamed in at 12:30 p.m. their excitement was curtailed by the familiar voice of OLV staff member Lee Marshall, who commanded them to settle down. They responded instantly and sat on the floor so Sapia could give them a quick lesson in personal hygiene, food safety, sanitation, the benefits of eating local foods, measuring, knife skills and mise en place. They counted themselves off into groups, wrote their names on their chef hats, washed hands and proceeded to cluster. Marshall boomed direction and that was the last time she had to raise her voice. The groups were engaged, focused, moving to their proscribed task and taking direction. Volunteer Alejandra Garza’s group that was assigned to make fondue was stymied by the lack of a burner and a pot, but the kids easily switched gears and became Pizza Group 2.

Volunteer Susan Brown’s Pizza Group 1 was working outside initially, at the loading dock, spreading tomato sauce on prebaked pizza shells under Turnipseed’s direction and praying that the rain would hold off. When the huge slabs of dough were ready, Brown led the troops back to the long table where 20 different toppings were available. Cheese proved the number one choice and pepperoni was second. One creative child scattered Romaine leaves and prosciutto and created a winner. Some pizzas were dribbled with pesto, with peppers, with sautéed vegetables — namely the one prepared by Enzo Sapia, half of the Sapia twins who are part of the 2015 OLV graduating class — but every child eschewed the kale.

Sapia was holding court over the pickled vegetable and salad groups, explaining the pickling process and how to achieve balance in a vinaigrette by adding a little sweetener. A dishpan-sized salad was quickly assembled with leaves of Romaine, cucumbers, asparagus, chunks of cooked potato and a stray green bean or two. The groups’ next task was infused water and oranges, mint and lime were hastily submerged in pitchers and iced.

Volunteer Theresa Maher guided her group through the cleaning, drying and dipping of strawberries, even making a dipping sauce with sour cream and honey for some plain berries. Using the microwave to melt the chocolate, not an easy task, was not beyond the ken of these accomplished chocolatiers under Maher’s direction.

Grassroots efforts like this pop-up cooking demo are one way to provide our next generation with some culinary skills, and more parents could be involved. Talk to the teachers, ask the principal at your child’s school. It is most likely that they will welcome the diversion, so rich with lessons in problem-solving, math, and best of all — tasting. Sapia had a leg up with a rolling pizza oven, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as that.

Sapia’s lesson — that cooking with fresh, local vegetables and sharing the communally prepared meal — was enthusiastically received by the eighth-graders, who were very polite and thanked everyone involved. It’s a lesson that can be learned in any of our schools; it is a lesson that needs to be taught. Will all the kids go home and make pickled vegetables, salad, and pizza with their families? Now that would really be a miracle!