Thursday, March 19, 2009

CET talks with a high school chef-instructor whose lessons help students and the community

Editor's note: A portion of the following Q&A was featured in the "Student culanthropy" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the March 2009 issue of Chef Educator Today.

Jim Berman, CCI, is a chef-instructor at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington, Del. He also is the moderator for the school's extra-curricular Cooks and Bakers club, in which student participants receive additional culinary instruction while cooking for various community-oriented causes (see previous post on the club here). Chef Educator Today (CET) recently spoke with Berman about his unique club and his great students.

CET: What was the impetus for Delcastle's Cooks and Bakers club?
Berman: About 6 years ago, the students decided that they needed more time, beyond the regular class day, to explore their trade. They wanted to compete in local and national culinary competitions, so as a group, they decided to form an after-school club to prepare for those competitions. As such, to bring their learning to life, we decided that becoming viable contributors to the community would be the next, logical step. So, we started taking on some community service projects. The natural match would be to work with younger children and provide opportunities for them to explore the fun side of cooking, food safety, basic nutrition and tasting food.

CET: Tell us about some of the events and activities in which the club has participated.
Berman: Each year we celebrate the winter holidays with the annual Great Gingerbread House Construction Tour. The Tour takes us to local libraries, elementary schools and the Ronald McDonald House Charities to work with young children to create gingerbread houses, chocolate covered marshmallow snowmen, hot chocolate, gingerbread men and create holiday cards. The events allow us the opportunity to garner support from the community to provide supplies and gifts for the kids with which we work. This [past] year, Hy-Point Dairy Farms Inc. contributed milk cartons to use for gingerbread house frames, and Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Publishers donated books that tie into the season. Our local supermarket, the Kenney Family ShopRite, went above and beyond with donating all of the candy needed for the events. We also partnered with our Dental Assisting program to bring along some of their students to give out toothbrushes, toothpaste and enlighten the kids with visits from the Tooth Fairy. The Gingerbread Tour participants are asked to bring along non-perishable food items to be distributed to the Food Bank of Delaware. We brought in over 1,000 pounds of canned goods, so the event is very much a multi-faceted project.

We also celebrate children’s literature with the Edible Celebration of Dr. Seuss’ Birthday. The birthday celebrations happen once on Dr. Seuss’ actual birthday, March 2nd, and then again on National and Global Youth Service Day in the end of April at local libraries. The students recreate food inspired by Dr. Seuss’ books, including Thidwick the Moose Chocolate Mousse, Yurtle the Turtle’s Caramel Turtles, Daisy Head Maisy’s Sugar Cookie Daisies. Of course, there are visits from the Cat in the Hat and hands-on cooking demonstrations, including Green Eggs. The participants at this event are asked to bring new or gently used books to benefit CHILD Inc., a local battered women’s and children’s shelter. This past year’s event was recognized by the National Education Association as Reading Across America’s “Outstanding High School Event.”

Also, throughout the year, various organizations, including Families First and the March of Dimes, will give us an opportunity to help with their fund-raising and awareness campaigns. A Taste for Art was a classical art-inspired event where students prepared various dishes based on their class work—but were limited to only serving black and white food, like risotto with black mushrooms, sushi rolls and squid ink pasta. The March of Dimes hosted “The Farmer and the Chef” showcase that pitted local restaurant chefs against each other, with the support of regional farmers’ products while raising money for birth defect research. The Cooks and Bakers were the only student-level competitors amidst a sea of regionally known chefs.

Additionally, to keep up with the spirit of serving the community, the crew participates in various walk-a-thons and local support events.

CET: What is your biggest challenge as a high school chef-instructor and culinary club moderator?
Berman: Are there ever enough hours in the day? I am fortunate to have a very dedicated, hard-working group of students that are committed to their trade and learning all that they can. My challenge is to keep up with their needs [by] providing worthwhile opportunities that hold real-world value that promotes what they need to be successful in their chosen careers. A five-day school week with days that end around 4:00 p.m. usually just is not enough. There is rarely a day that goes by without at least a handful of students in our classroom/cafĂ© well past 6:00 p.m. Most weekends are, at least in part, crammed full of community service events, travel to a regional market, checking out a food-related festival or preparing for competition. The downturn in the economy has not been a tremendous help for the educational sector, but more and more students are taking writing grants and writing to potential partners to help with support. The upside is that students are taking more ownership—not just [in] getting the events organized and executed, but [also] in the planning and development of the events as well.

CET: What initiatives do you and your students have planned for the remaining school year and beyond?
Berman: In keeping with always moving the Cooks and Bakers forward, we have taken on the daunting task of helping a local art therapy group raise money and awareness to keep their program going. This group is comprised of young people with very serious cognitive disabilities, [and] art is one of only a few methods they can use to express themselves. So, we are collaborating with other departments within our school to help them: Our carpentry students are making items to assist with their art work; our production and imaging students are creating frames for their artwork; our digital media department is creating a Web site to raise awareness of their needs; [and] we are going to host a gala auction, complete with our own version of a cook-off to raise money. The art program is far reaching and grand in scope, so there is a lot of student-driven planning and organization necessary to make this new venture a success.