Competition Teams Up Chefs, Students to Cook Up Better School Lunches

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  |  Read the full article

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Chicken sizzling, 10 minutes to go. Latex-covered fingers loading pizzas, cheddar biscuits out of the oven, 5 minutes. Rice molds on plates, stir fry steaming.

When prompted, a gathering crowd at Smallman Galley in the Strip counted down — 10, 9, 8 … (fruit salads plated) … 7, 6, 5 … (pizza sliced) … 4, 3, 2 — and cheered as Project Lunch Tray sent the first team of students hurrying plates out to three judges.

“Station two on deck!” Emily Voelker, education and outreach coordinator at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, called out.

Sixteen teams, four at a time, competed in Community Kitchen’s annual event Saturday. Students were teamed with chefs in a fun, frenetic day of rethinking school lunches. Winners will be announced March 25 at an event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Both events are sponsored by PNC Bank.

Project Lunch Tray is an education outreach of Community Kitchen to expose youth to kitchens, chefs, a public audience and nutritious ingredients in recipes that could become school lunches.

“We get chefs and kids to come up with a school lunch that puts a spin on what is possible,” said Jennifer Flanagan, executive director of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. The non-profit is a culinary arts training ground for adults who have employment barriers, including past incarceration. Community Kitchen provides meals under contract to schools and organizations that serve the needy and also caters events.

James Wright, a Community Kitchen chef, worked with students from Pace School of Churchill in round one at station one, where 12-year-old Jeremiah Fielder deftly carved fat from chicken breasts.

“We had four classes together” in preparation, Mr. Wright said. “They are ready and focused, fantastic kids.”

Karen Shepherd, Pace’s CEO, said Project Lunch Tray “was the first non-school event our kids have ever had,” in 50 years. Pace is a private school that provides behavioral care. “For us to see their attention and focus and for them to see that they can do things is such a reward.”

“It was fun,” said Jeremiah, who said he likes to cook at home." Learning how to make salad and a precise dressing was unique.”

Each team had to clean up for the next round, and leftovers went into sample cups for people who crowded the stations. Chefs from the likes of Big Burrito Group, BRGR, Pork and Beans and Carmi Soul Food were among the mentors in the first three rounds. Smallman Galley’s regular chefs manned their stations in round four.

Smallman Galley is a restaurant incubator for four chefs at a time to test their concepts before flying solo.

Torie Day, owner of Day La Soul Cafe in Allentown, worked with students from CISP Penn Hills on teriyaki pizza and steamed broccoli. “I chose them so I could try to have a positive impact,” she said.

CISP, or Community Intensive Supervision Program, provides an environment more structured than parole but non-residential.

Donyae Taylor of CISP North Side said it was interesting to have the pressure of being timed.

“We made a healthy meal,” he said. “The biscuits are what made the plate complete.”

CISP North Side’s mentor, Kevin Hermann, executive chef at The Porch at Schenley Park, also participated last year.

“It’s part of my effort to give back,” he said. “They came up with the food items and we worked on the recipes together. They’re smart, smooth workers. It’s fun for me, and there’s always the hope” that a troubled teen he mentors might become a cook or chef.

Judges Mary Kathryn Poole, director of Let’s Move Pittsburgh, and Mekael Teshone, an economist at PNC, both remarked on the quality of the food and “the passion the students have” for what they made and how they made it.

Ms. Flanagan said some students “really come out of their shell in this project. At one school, a teacher said a student who had never opened up started talking about how he knows how to filet a fish.”

by Diana Nelson Jones | Photography by Pam Panchak

Chea Davis