“They made amazing stuff.”
That was chef Andrew Mersmann’s reaction to the kids who participated in the Junior Chef “Something from Nothing” event this summer at Gabriel’s Place in Avondale. Gabriel’s Place, a center for food education and sustainable community space, empowers high school students to make healthy meals from the things they can find in their cupboards or at the corner store; the kind of ingredients most kids look at and say, “There’s nothing to eat.”
Gabriel’s Place program manager and chef Kristen St. Clair started the Junior Chef program in 2013, funded in part by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State. It grew from her frustration with what she perceived as a “total lack of cooking” mentality among kids who don’t know what to do if there’s no prepared food on hand, but it also grew in part from her own childhood experience, where she and her sister, who were homeschooled, were tasked with making dinner.
“Something tasty out of what we could get our hands on,” she says.
St. Clair recruited Mersmann, executive chef and general manager at Django Western Taco in Northside, to help. They also had a hand from Jamie Stoneham, the program director at Gorman Heritage Farm in Evendale, who hopes to develop a similar class for the students she works with at the farm. (Gorman Heritage Farm runs an after-school Culinary Club through Norwood Public Schools.)
Stoneham was amazed that the students “made deliciousness out of only items you could find at a dollar store.”
“They actually talked about flavors,” she says, “and how the ingredients would work together, with different colors and textures.”
The day started with brainstorming. The kids faced their “mystery ingredients” — canned Spam, canned chicken breast, apples, onions and pantry items — and began to make a plan. Mersmann also faced his own hesitation head-on.
“I have to admit, I’d never had Spam,” he says. “But you can’t cook with an ingredient if you don’t know what it tastes like. So we fried some up, and I was surprised; it wasn’t bad.”
The kids were timid going into it, but their enthusiasm grew as they talked about the ingredients. Once they had decided what they wanted to cook, the chefs were impressed by how everything came together.
“The kids developed a plan and a prep list — what comes first, next, the order of execution. They divvied up the tasks. They were naturals,” Mersmann says.
“They had good conversations about food,” Stoneham adds. “They couldn’t just say that they didn’t like something. They had to explain why.”
One team made a tuna melt with herby potatoes and boiled eggs. The other created a chicken and apple salad, garnished with crisp fried Spam, and took their time to make French onion soup, using onions that were grown in the community garden at Gabriel’s Place. Starting with something that looks like a dirt clump and turning it into a delicious meal through long, slow cooking is valuable — not just as a survival skill, but as a step toward a future career.
In addition to the Something from Nothing challenge, participants in the Junior Chef program took field trips to Via Vite and Metropole at the 21c Museum Hotel to see restaurant kitchens in action. They learned to break down chicken and fish — cutting them into serving pieces with as much skill and little waste as possible. The students are also encouraged to return for a second summer, when they’ll be in the next “tier” and learn advanced techniques.
Getting kids — or even many adults — to think outside the box when it comes to meals can be a huge challenge. St. Clair’s mission at Gabriel’s Place is to take the mystery out of cooking and put the creativity back in. She encourages the students to taste and improvise, instead of just following recipe directions. And because there’s a garden on site, she’s glad when they spotlight fresh produce. As the students learned, you don’t have to pay for flavor.
“I was happy that they really leaned on the fresh ingredients — the apples and the onions — to make their finished dishes,” St. Clair says. “I think that when you use whole foods to nourish yourself, nutrition follows automatically.”