The smell of fresh-cut lemons fills the small cafeteria at the Washington School for Girls in Southeast on a recent Tuesday. Soon the aroma of cinnamon takes over, followed by the sharp scent of onions and ginger as a bustling group of student chefs chop and slice with shiny eight-inch professional knives. Some peel and dice sweet potatoes. Others measure chicken broth and spices. At the other end of the work table, girls rip the leaves off red-stemmed Swiss chard, organizing the greens into piles.
The sixth-graders work after school under the direction of chef instructor Patrick McDermott. He teaches, demonstrates and advises. He calls each of his students “Chef.” He also checks the food, stirring a pot of steaming seasoned chicken and then moving on to oversee the greens, which are now ready to wilt in a pot of fragrant liquid bubbling on the stove. The result of the student chefs’ work will be a traditional Ethiopian meal for them to share.
The class is a year-long program called Cooking Skills and World Cuisine. Once a week, students meet to learn about cultures across the globe and healthful food choices through cooking (and eating). On this day, students learned about Ethiopian culture, such as how extended families often share meals and that the person sitting next to you is supposed to refill your drink. This month they also made food from Germany and Jamaica.
The student chefs also learn about nutrition, including such topics as “the importance of having fruits and vegetables and a variety of color on your plate and portion control,” McDermott says.
He works as the D.C. program manager for the nonprofit organization Common Threads, a community program based in Chicago, Illinois, that promotes wellness through healthful cooking and eating. Common Threads offers the class, which also teaches kitchen safety and cleanliness, recipe reading, measuring ingredients and table manners.
McDermott teaches knife skills, too. For some, such as 11-year old Sa’Nai Lathern, it’s the best part of the class. “Chopping makes me feel happy,” she says.
For other students, it means more privileges at home.
“Before . . . my mom was scared to give me a knife,” says Sydney Stevens, who’s also 11. “Now she trusts me with a knife.”
In addition to the greens dish, called ye’abesha gomen, on that Tuesday the chefs also made doro wat, a traditional Ethiopian stew. As it simmers, the girls clean the kitchen and prepare dessert. A few chefs debate the cutting techniques required to turn a whole mango into cubes. Is it more like cutting a tomato or an avocado?
Actually, it’s a bit of both, says McDermott. He shows the girls how to cut it lengthwise, then to cut it in half, off center, to avoid the core and leave a large slice to cut into a checkerboard pattern.
It’s a recipe for fruit skewers that requires the juicy, orange cubes, plus sliced bananas. The girls repeat the directions from adult volunteer Sigita Clark as they pierce the fruit on thin wooden sticks, “a banana, a mango, a banana, a mango.”
With the skewers assembled, set on a tray and sprinkled with ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves, it’s time to eat.
“I love making food with my hands and then sharing it with my friends,” says 12-year-old Za’Niyah Martin.
As for Sydney, she says the afternoon has been like taking a trip to Ethiopia. She tried zucchini for the first time and “it wasn’t bad.”