Saturday, June 5, 2010

Todd Gray Speaks at The White House

Friday June 4th 2010

I adopted Murch Elementary last year – a public school here in Washington, DC.

Working through the schools administration we visited during lunch and assessed what the kids were eating. All though there were some fruits and available much of it was actually going into the trash.  From this observation it became clear to me that the kids may have heard that these foods are “good for you” – but they were not necessarily eating them. 
I needed to somehow make these nourishing foods more appealing to the kids by helping them to have more respect for wholesome foods. By helping them to experience more about the origins of their food and involving them in the process they developed wonder and natural curiosity took over.  

It dawned on me that as chefs; what comes so natural to us is not so accessible to kids – many of them are not invited into a kitchen or a garden on a regular basis – food is something that is put in front of them and they are told to eat it. But they have tremendous curiosity – it was not hard to get them excited. This is where a chef can have the most impact in a school – bringing this opportunity to the entire school population.
This needs an approach that involves the teachers, the parents and the school administration. What developed from this process was a community set on changing not just the foods offered to kids but the way the kids look at food in general. The parents and teachers became just as excited about the project as the kids did.
We held several meetings in the school library with a core group of participating parents to plot the year and how we would do this together – I guided them on the food end they guided me on teaching their kids. 
The teachers at Murch began to incorporate the idea of a school garden and cooking into the classroom through earth sciences where they were taught about geminating seeds to mathematics where fractions are a natural part of following a recipe.
Kids are not into preaching as we all know – they only learn and act when they are excited about something – That’s why this required a hands on tactic to teaching them to how to plant, harvest and cook some very basic produce – the idea got them excited and most importantly interested.

One of the most successful ways of accomplishing this is hands on cooking classes – The don’t have to be complex – we set up several stations in the gym or on the playground and gave kids simple tasks to do while preparing a meal for the entire group. They enjoyed simple tasks like mixing ingredients for a panzanella and making simple vinaigrette. It gave them pride in their creation – and bonus – they got to eat it! I demonstrated to them how to trim an asparagus – by giving them their own pile to then work with I saw them laughing and having a great time with it – they were involved in the process not just cooked for and told what to eat because its healthy.

The parents are just as excited about the cooking tips as the kids. Our classes became a meeting point for a sort of Q&A with the “school chef”. I encouraged and answered so many cooking questions from parents on everything from proper cooking times of a chicken to healthy alternative for deserts. I am doing them quarterly with a seasonal emphasis. Involving the kids and parents together in these classes gave the group a foundation to work together. Kids love the idea of a team.  
This is where we chefs – we men and women in white can help out because kids see our whites and instinctively listen to us – they see us as a definite authority figure when it comes to food. This is why we are so valuable to this movement.
We started a little village of gardeners at Murch school, the parents, the faculty and the kids, it grew into a community that I led – that is something I never experienced before.

Its incredibly gratifying to make such a difference in a school – to be in a position of leadership for an entire community is incredible – it’s a terrific way to be so appreciated outside of my own kitchen.
Its very helpful to interweave the food and where it comes from into the school curriculum. This helped to build a discussion point for kids and parents at home and in the classroom on whatever level they chose – some kids like the cooking part some like the math part – some just like the eating part – but the substance was there for this dialogue to take place. My cooking demonstrations gave families a starting point for conversation – it was an activity that brought them together.
Every community is different – the key to success is approaching that community is from being a member of it – by adopting a school you become not just a member but a leader. Not one that is coming to preach to them how they should change their eating habits – but one showing them how and most importantly involving them in the process. They need the seed of guidance and then I found that the community takes over and makes its own way – all will be different – all situations/budgets and administrators are different – you have to recognize and respect that. 

This project has been one of the most rewarding aspect of my 25 year career as a chef. I never dreamed of this in culinary school – but this is the evolution of things and we are needed right now to share our culinary education and experience with our next generation of diners.

Make a commitment to the school and these kids –it will change your life professionally and personally – our own son is so proud of what we are doing and asks us all the time – “when are you coming to my school?” 
 -     Chef Todd Gray ~ The White House 2010

1 comment:

  1. Damn, you are good! I can't wait to eat with you tomorrow night when we put Isabelle in EHS. John Trask