Kitchen ABCs at a Madison Middle School
A master chef, a room full of seventh graders, and a salsa garden. That's just the beginning.
Chef Tory Miller and his students at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin.
Image by Liliane Calfee-Miller
Visit Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin on a Monday afternoon and you’ll likely be tempted to follow your nose—up the stairs to the second floor and down the hallway a few doors to the right.
There the smells of sizzling garlic and onions and simmering vegetable stock waft out of a classroom’s open doors. Inside, Chef Tory Miller—clad in a bleach white chef’s jacket, baggy cotton pants, and kitchen clogs, his jet black Mohawk neatly gelled to a point—holds up a mystery vegetable to his third class of the day, a group of fidgety seventh graders with aprons draped around their necks.
“Anybody know what this is?” he asks.
“Kohlrabi?” guesses one student. Not quite. “Avocado?” tries another. No. “Something edible?” Well, yes.
“This is called celery root,” Miller tells them, a starchy, sweet vegetable that is among the ingredients in a tomato vegetable soup the class will be making today. The students nod, no one cringes. Next he holds up a scarlet turnip and a handful of frost-sweetened spinach. He cuts up a carrot in slow motion, instructing the kids to “remember the claw” to avoid nicks.
Every other Monday, Miller teaches Sherman seventh graders the tools of his trade, which also happen to be the tools of healthy eating—cooking skills, an appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables, and a well-rounded knowledge of local, seasonal produce.
While Michelle Obama sows the seeds of a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, Sherman Middle School is already ahead of the curve. The salsa garden the school planted last year produced almost 600 pounds of tomatoes, which blended into jars of student-made salsa, brought in $1,300 at local markets. And while the students may not be aware of it, they’re learning to hold their own in a kitchen and garden from one of the best chefs in town.
A New York City ex-pat, Miller ventured to the Midwest to work under Odessa Piper—Madison’s Alice Waters—at her nationally recognized restaurant, L’etoile, which offers a seasonal menu drawing on Wisconsin’s bounty of produce, cheeses, and meats. After two years as Piper’s chef de cuisine, Miller bought the restaurant and took over as executive chef.
But his ambitions extended beyond the precisely plated entrees he cranked out at L’etoile. “It’s important to me that as a chef I’m not just about cooking for people that come to a white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant,” he said. “Chefs are kind of like rock stars in the food movement … but it’s like, if we’re gonna be that and put that on our shoulders and our resumes, then we’ve got to bring the farms with us and our communities with us.”
So Miller approached Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, Madison’s farm-to-school program, about extending L’etoile’s mission into the classroom. And what started as a cooking demonstration has evolved into C.H.O.W., or Cooking Healthy Options in Wisconsin, a program that fosters food literacy, teaches students about their region’s agricultural heritage, and expands their palates.
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