Youths get taste of culinary world
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 12:53 PM
In the last year-and-a-half, more than 20 young chefs worked in the White House kitchen, prepared food for President Obama and his guests at a Fourth of July picnic and planted food in first lady Michelle Obama's garden.
They fit all that in around algebra homework, basketball games, Facebook and navigating the ever-eventful world that is high school. They gained access to palates that some world-class chefs will never get, simply because they completed a written application and an in-person interview to gain entry into Brainfood.
"One day they'll have a chef throw a 40-pound flounder on the table in front of them, and the next class they're playing with Bo, the White House dog," said Paul J. Dahm, executive director of the nonprofit organization headquartered in St. Stephen and Incarnation Church in Columbia Heights.
The youth development organization exposes high school students to all things culinary: cooking techniques, classes led by local and Food Network chefs, restaurant visits and tips on reading food labels.
Armonte Butler, 15, is one of a select few D.C. public school students who get to wear the official Brainfood apron a couple times a week. The Banneker Senior High School sophomore paid rapt attention as Chef Robert Barolin taught him and eight other students how to chiffonade (that's chef talk for "roughly cut") basil to prepare Mediterranean shrimp pasta and bruschetta recently.
When the students were ready to practice what they learned, Butler leaned over a large silver sink and focused as he carefully peeled and deveined shrimp.
"Both of my parents work late, so I used to have to wait for them to eat," said Butler, of the Shaw neighborhood. "When I heard about this program, I wanted to learn how to cook."
Although Butler can julienne with aplomb, he doesn't want to be a chef. The aspiring magazine editor has a passion for fashion but considers himself to be well served by his newly acquired, practical life skills.
Nowadays after school lets out, he snacks on cupcakes that he makes and whips up corn bread, baked chicken, barbecue chicken, broccoli with cheese and other dishes he learned to prepare since the start of the program in September.
"One of the best recipes was when we learned how to make fried chicken without frying it. We put the chicken in crushed-up cereal and put it in the oven," he said. "It's like fake fried chicken."
Barolin, co-owner of City Square Cafe in Manassas, is one of several chefs who volunteers at Brainfood to teach and cook with the children. The program relies on creative partnerships and volunteers to keep its fires burning and kitchens open.
"That's one of the great things about working with these chefs," Dahm said. "We get to raid their kitchens and introduce the students to all of this great food."