April 2009 Trip

April 2009 Trip Update: The Expanding Ripples

We are pleased to report on the continuing fallout from our April 2009 trip to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

The post-trip spotlight shone on Chef Gary Podesto when his restaurant’s PR company wrote a piece on his CulinaryCorps experience in their weekly blog.

Ex-restaurateur, Mark Carter, shared his CulinaryCorps stories on his sister’s well-read website, Terry O’Dell.com, and received some wonderful comments about his efforts.  Read Part 1 and Part 2 and get a glimpse inside the many vivid images that we collect during a single trip.

The CulinaryCorps designed Grow.Cook.Dine curriculum will be officially launched in the Fall with the help of The Ocean Springs Audubon Society and Slow Food Mississippi/Alabama.

Lastly, we wish CulinaryCorps alumni, Zachary Hedden, a safe journey to Antarctica in August.  The consummate adventurer, Zachary has taken a one-year position as a cook in the research station at the bottom of the world.  His work in the kitchen will help nourish the discoveries for a better, wiser, tomorrow.  We wish him a safe journey and an incredible year of wonderment.

Capturing The Experience: Chef-Writers Blog 2009 Trip

We were extremely fortunate to have some tremendously observant, witty and poignant chef-writers onboard the 2009 April trip. They have captured their own versions of the trip; a refreshing take on the days spent cooking, eating and connecting with the tremendous people we served.

It has been wonderful to read the diversity that lies in the single common thread of participating on a CulinaryCorps trip; a happy reminder that we are all individuals – processing images, tastes, sounds and emotions completely differently yet somehow, the same.

Chocolate and Bacon

FancyPans

Crazy4Food

The Only Constant is Cooking

Day 6: From Black and White to Color

When we pulled up in our vans to Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, we collectively gasped.  What had once been a rock-strewn lot fenced in with barbed wire was now a colorful oasis illuminated in the hazy morning sun, with wildflowers peeking out behind newly planted citrus trees and native grasses bending easily in the breeze on the “living rooftops” of the outdoor classroom.  Since the inception of CulinaryCorps in 2007, we have witnessed and participated in the remarkable transformation of a former playground of the Samuel J. Green Charter School into an expansive organic garden.

We unloaded our vans full of pots and pans from Henckels (a kind donation to their new teaching kitchen) and were off on a tour of the enterprise with Chef April N. (CulinaryCorps alum ’07) and Director Donna C.  Once familiarized with the program and its emphasis on teachable moments through food, our team was tasked with creating menu items for the afternoon’s lunch.  But there was a wonderfully delightful catch.  The menu items had to be shopped for side-by-side with the entire third grade class (60 students total) and then taken back to the classroom to be transformed into lunch by those same students.  It was a challenge too sweet to pass up.

The team was quickly broken down into pairs and they got to work setting up their prepping/cooking stations.  Makeshift burners, plastic cutting boards and an insta-kitchen in what was once the “girl’s locker room” were the means upon which the meal would be created.  Undaunted, we departed for the Farmer’s Market confident that our charges would create a stellar meal.

The third graders arrived at the Crescent City Farmers Market with a palpable excitement but perhaps also a touch of apprehension—many of the students had never before been to an outdoor market.  Before long, however, the chef-student teams were making their way around the market doing a “scavenger hunt” and shopping for the food that would be their lunch.  While local strawberries were definitely the biggest draw, the students were incredibly courageous in their shopping choices and bought a variety of produce and products including romanesco broccoli, bright yellow crookneck squash and even alligator sausage.

Once back at the school, the teams immediately set to work chopping, sautéing, whisking and assembling.  Students tasted artichoke hearts for the first time and declared them “delicious!” and couldn’t stop popping deep purple kalamata olives into their mouths (another first for many).    The third grade class has only had the opportunity to cook three times this year, but the focus, creativity, courage and enthusiasm for creating the meal caught us all off guard.  As one girl chopped Creole tomatoes, she remarked that “she was in heaven.”

While it was definitely organized chaos during the lunch preparation, a beautiful meal of six eclectic dishes was proudly brought to the buffet by the participating students.  The menu included:

Whole Wheat Penne Pasta with Caramelized Cauliflower

Squash and Smoked Chicken Tacos with Fresh Salsa

Alligator, Olive and Artichoke Muffalettas

Strawberry and Fresh Herb Salad with Citrus Vinagrette

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Tasso and Edible Flowers

Fresh Strawberry and Mint Soda

LA Strawberry Shortcake with Smith’s Creamery Cream

The lunch was a HUGE success!  After seconds, thirds and even fourths were handed out, the buffet dwindled down to nothing.  There were smiling faces and thumbs up all around.  It was amazing to witness the day going from apprehension to elation in just a few turns in the pan.

As they headed off to recess, we all mugged for photos, gave hugs and  slapped high-fives to the adventurous eaters we had the privilege of working with.  Right before their departure, Ms. Costa, one of the amazing third-grade teachers at the school, said it was the highlight of their year so far.  CulinaryCorps can certainly say the same.

The trip ended later that day on the sunny quad of Xavier University.  As we were summing up our experiences for each other, Viviana (our trip co-leader and a four-time CulinaryCorps participant) said that things in New Orleans “have gone from black and white to color.”  A simple statement full of truth.  There is palpable optimism and wonderful momentum infiltrating the City and inoculating the projects we worked with this week.  And after two years of CulinaryCorps trips, we found that the impetus is no longer just about rebuilding but also about enrichment.  CulinaryCorps was honored, privileged and inspired to be a part of it all, if at least for a brief and shining moment.

[Thank you to Liz Williams of SoFab for writing about our visit on the museum’s blog]

Day 5: Dream Come True

A morning that starts with the sunrise may not always be easy, but today it could not have been any more exciting.

CulinaryCorps has fostered a tremendous partnership with Slowfood Gulf Coast since 2007, and when they asked us to develop a cooking and gardening club curriculum for school-aged children in the Ocean Springs School District of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, we jumped at the opportunity.  CulinaryCorps had been searching for a way to make longer lasting impacts on the communities we serve; a program that would live on well after we left seemed like a dream opportunity.

Many months of curriculum development later, we found ourselves taking over the halls of the “Mary C” (the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center of Arts and Education) in Ocean Springs, crafting culinary work stations from fold-up tables, electric burners and plastic cut mats.  We were officially launching the “GROW.COOK.DINE.” curriculum for over 90 Taconi Elementary 5th grade students.  Showcasing five days of the ten-day curriculum, this launch event was a chance for teachers, administrators, funders and media to get excited about the project.

Set to launch in the Fall of 2009, GROW.COOK.DINE. is an after-school cooking and gardening club that aims to get school-aged children familiar with growing their food in a garden, cooking their food from scratch, and sharing their food around a communal table.  The ten-week curriculum culminates in a communal dining experience where the students cook “Top Chef” style and invite families and friends to enjoy their creations!

By 10:30am, the first 45 students had arrived.  The giddy, unrestrained anticipation of a “day with the chefs” was our first clue that we were on to something big.  The second was when one young girl turned to her chef-teacher and said “this is a dream come true.  I’m in heaven.”

The CulinaryCorps chefs were able to take the 2-D class handouts and turn them into unforgettable 3-D experiences; creating good food and amazing memories in the process. The ease upon which the students fell into the curriculum and started tasting, chopping, flipping, folding and most importantly, learning, was astounding.   The second group of 45 students proved to be just as successful and they happily consumed their creations including whole-wheat flapjacks with blueberry compote, quesadillas with salsa, homemade granola and yogurt parfaits, strawberry and chocolate fondue, and spinach wonton soup.

By raise of hand, all but 2 of the more than 90 participating students said they would participate in the program if launched.  When asked what they would like to see improved we had many say “nothing!” but several asked for “more time” and “more recipes.”  One chocolate lover did say that adding a “swimming pool filled with chocolate pudding” would be a nice addition to the coursework.  We said that might be a target for 2010.

It was hard not to be touched by the earnest learning that was happening in those rooms.  The students and the chefs were so engaged, so happily lost in the small miracles of making simple but delicious food, you could not help but feel that there was magic at work.  It was amazing to watch a creation on paper spring vigorously to life.  We wish the citizens of Ocean Springs the best of luck with the ongoing launch of the program, and we hope to have many more contributions to help support its growth and success.

By the time the final group wrapped, the team was joyously exhausted.  But not too tired to make our way to Pappa Roni’s in Vancleave, Mississippi, where Chef Dani cooked an amazing Sicilian meal.  The vibe was so warm, so welcoming, we couldn’t help but fall into relaxed chatter and happy laughter.  Chef Dani believes in making things from scratch with a sign proclaiming:  “this isn’t fast food.  this is good food.”  We cannot agree more and thank her for giving us a small respite after a very long, and rewarding, day.

[UPDATE:  A news story in the Mississippi Sun Herald provides another perspective on yesterday’s events.]

Day 4: Magnificent Synergy

Projects for each CulinaryCorps trip are planned many, many months in advance.  Menus are created, recipes tested and shop lists written, but sometimes even the best laid plans are undone.  And, sometimes, it is in their undoing that unexpected opportunities save the day.

When we were told on the day we arrived that our brunch in the Lower 9th Ward was not feasible, we immediately started making phone calls for a back-up plan.  We just knew someone could use 24 idle cooks’ hands for something.

Within 24 hours, we got this e-mail from local cook, filmmaker and most recently, director of Colton Kitchen — David Aman:

Yea, you want to build a kitchen?.. Seriously, we’re using the kitchen next weekend for jazz fest events and have been burning the midnight oil getting it ready. the CC came to the rescue at just the right time.

Obviously, the answer was yes!   And while it wasn’t a cooking event it was close kin.  Housed in the Colton Studios, Colton Kitchen aims to be New Orleans’ first incubator kitchen for local chefs in the area.  In exchange for space to cater or develop products, each cook involved in the program must develop a unique after-school cooking curriculum for local high-school students.  The first program to launch this summer is “In It To Win It” — a program that has students researching cooking contests and designing, testing and entering recipes for prizes.  A fantastic (and potentially lucrative!) project.

After an amazing tour of the entire school — gutted and overtaken by 80 talented artists, dancers, photographers, musicians and gardeners — David introduced us to the kitchen space that was in need of a bit of fine tuning before their grand opening in a week’s time.  We painted the exhaust system (lovingly nicknamed “the mangler”), de-greased light covers, cleaned sinks, moved kitchen appliances, mopped, swept and generally used a whole lot of grease of the elbow variety.  We left the place looking at least “25%” better and walked away knowing that we helped get Colton Kitchen on track.

Before the team left, we gifted the kitchen a trunkful of brand new Henckels pots and pans to give them a head start in the equipment department.  They were thrilled with the first few additions to their cupboards.

From Colton Kitchen, we were off the the French Quarter for a very special evening at Bourbon House.  Escorted upstairs into a private dining room, we were greeted first by the smell of rich wine and second by the warm welcomes of Michael Eckstein, winemaker at Franciscan Estates.  After a brief introduction, Michael took us through a wine blending workshop where each cook had their own “laboratory” of wines set out in front of them complete with a pipette.  After tasting the varietals individually, we were tasked with creating our own blend.  We then tried Michael’s, the wonderful Magnificat, and quickly realized the true craft and rare genius behind blending.  Michael called it a lesson in synergy; with the way the trip’s events had been unfolding, we completely understood what he meant.

From the workshop to the table, we were greeted by towering “fruits de mer” plates and our culinary host for the evening, Chef Darin Nesbit.  A true friend of CulinaryCorps, Darin showcased a “best of” menu, pairing them perfectly with curated selection of wines by Michael.

  1. Sauvignon Blanc…Fruit de Mer
  2. Chardonnay…Butter poached lobster claw with lobster brioche, grapefruit buerre blanc and a petite citrus salad.
  3. Cabernet….Pan seared ricotta “Purse” with a mixed berry salad and pomegranate vinaigrette. Probably toss in some currants and candied hazelnuts…..
  4. Merlot…clove rubbed dry aged duck with “four spice” sweet potatoes
  5. Magnificant…bbq venison chop with three pepper crust
  6. “Blondie” and bourbon milk punch.

It was a meal never to forget.  The food and wine pairing was pitch perfect, but beyond that we fell in love with our hosts for the evening.  Michael moved us as he stood and read from President Obama’s inaugural speech.  We felt renewed and humbled by the kindness showered upon us.  At that table, we were synergy in its pure and blissful state.  A magnificent blend of good food and good will.

Day 3: Culinary Spartans

You’ve got to love the bakers!  Up and out before the rest of the bunch, they sacrificed precious sleep to get their yeast rolls rising.  The remainder of us savory cooks arrived at Liberty’s Kitchen at 9am to find the National Guard putting up the evening’s tents and Chef Reggie (and his right-hand man Hardy), cracking on with the evening’s mise en place.

We quickly found our respective tasks and settled in.  Knives were sharpened, bandanas pulled on and workspace claimed.  Twelve cooks take up a lot of space but everyone managed to find a little corner to call their own in the tiny cafe; a couple of the clever cooks even made a makeshift outdoor kitchen using butane burners, a frydaddy and a couple old metal cabinets.

Meanwhile, any idle hands were put to work turning a functioning parking lot into a celebratory space with a sparkle.  A few votive candles, sunflowers and vintage-looking string lights can really go a long way.  Pretty soon a once-dusty parking lot looked like a real space for a party.  And what a party it was!

At 7pm sharp the guests started pouring in.  The residents came out to support the mission of Liberty’s Kitchen not only with their hearts but with their wallets.  In return, they were treated to amazing music (Germaine Basil), superb cocktails (NOLA Brown and Blonde Ales) and stellar food.  The tasting menu resulted from a beautiful synergy between Chef Reggie and the entire CulinaryCorps team, and included:

  • Redfish Goujonette on Puree of Califlower
  • Pork Tenderloin Tournedos with Corn Pudding and Gingersnap Gravy
  • Andouille Sausage with Sweet and Sour Cabbage
  • Shrimp Remoulade
  • Pulled Pork on Sweet Potato Biscuits
  • Pasta Jambalaya Orzo with Smoked Chicken
  • Sweet Corn Cake Topped with Fried Quail Eggs, Greens and Bacon
  • Crawfish Risotto
  • Pissaladiere with Fig Olive Tapenade
  • Bayou Brownie with Caramelized Banana and Pepper Praline Sauce
  • Strawberry Po’Boys with Chocolate and Vanilla Custard

By 7:20pm, over 130 people had arrived.  The front of the house volunteers failed to show so a few CulinaryCorps cooks put on their best game faces, grabbed a tray and started passing appetizers.  The others either manned their “action station” cooking small bites for a hovering crowd or staffed the back kitchen to replenish trays, deep fry fish and flash pork tenderloins in the oven.

The night was like a dream.  Smiling faces, sincere thanks, feel good music, and seconds, thirds, fourths and beyond on all the menu items.  The crowd managed to make good on all the food we made and we had just enough to nosh while catching the last couple of tunes by the band.

As the night came to a joyful close, Chef Reggie relayed a conversation that he had with Keisha, their coffee bar manager.  He said to her that he was “so impressed with these CulinaryCorps cooks, they came in just like warriors”.  And she replied, “not just like warriors, like Spartans.”   We came, we saw, we cooked.

Best wishes for a successful grand opening Liberty’s Kitchen!  We’re behind you every step of the way.