Kitchen ABCs at a Madison Middle School

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Image by Liliane Calfee-Miller
Chef Tory Miller and his students at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin.

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.

On the shoulders of dedicated people, C.H.O.W. developed in the void left by a failed, traditional approach to farm-to-school. Efforts to get local produce incorporated into school lunches confronted common challenges. Money, of course, is an issue. School district budgets for fresh fruits and vegetables are miniscule–around one dollar per student per year, according to Brent Kramer, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch’s education coordinator. And the systematic hurdles are just as significant. Madison school lunches are processed and packaged into individual portions in a large central kitchen. “They don’t do much cooking at all at the central kitchen,” Kramer said. Meals are sent from there “to the schools, where they’re just warmed up. So trying to introduce raw product or fresh fruits and vegetables into this system is a huge challenge.”

Eventually, Kramer said, it was obvious it wasn’t working. But there was substantial interest in developing educational programs around nutrition and local foods, and that’s where much of the group’s focus now lies. At the elementary level, they coordinate farm field trips, bring farmers into the classroom, and assist with fresh snack programs. But in order to get kids to make the healthy food choices you teach them about, “you need to provide the skills as well,” Kramer said.

That’s where C.H.O.W. comes in. Miller cultivates young foodies by teaching practical cooking skills and working to develop broader food literacy among students. He tries to break down resistance to new foods by incorporating ingredients often unfamiliar to kids–turnips, radishes, a “funky looking cauliflower” called romanesco, kohlrabi–into familiar dishes like fried rice, crepes, or pasta, always taking time to point out the produce’s Wisconsin origins. And when kids taste food, said Miller’s wife Lili, there are ground rules for how they talk about it. The Millers want students to learn “to form an opinion,” Lili said, “and not just say, ‘that’s yuck’ or ‘that’s yum,’ but really being able to describe what you like about something. Do you like the texture or do you not like the texture?”

With the surging popularity of the Food Network, corporate ascension of Whole Foods, and the naming of locavore as New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year, you might think the Millers’ efforts to make literate eaters mainstream would be easy. But in an on-the-go culture bombarded with cheap, quick and easy snack and meal options, it’s still an uphill battle.

Writing for Gastronomica, Maggie Jackson reports that “nearly half of Americans say they eat most meals away from home or on the go,” and only “47 percent of in-home meals include a ‘fresh’ item, such as a vegetable, compared with 56 percent two decades ago.”

Americans cook less than they used to, and that trend is blamed for contributing to the rise in obesity. ” People are eating more, and more often,” Barry Popkin, author of The World is Fat, recently told the New York Times. “And the food that they are consuming almost always replace meals cooked in a kitchen and eaten at a table.” That’s a problem, he said, because “almost any kind of cooking you can produce in a kitchen is healthier than fast food.”

The Millers are, however, lucky to be working in a receptive community. Madison is a town known for its progressive personality, and it’s home to an active local food scene, including the largest producer-only farmers market in the country. But drive down interstate 94 to Milwaukee, Miller says, and “it’s like a completely different scene.”

“But we’ve gotta start somewhere,” he adds. The chefs and educators behind C.H.O.W. measure their success in small ways. “By the end of the year we take them to the [farmers] market,” said Miller. “It’s always asparagus season by then. I’ll get asparagus and fresh cottage cheese, and they’ll just be out at market just dipping the asparagus right in there and eating it. In the beginning of the year, that’s not going to happen.”

Now in its third year, C.H.O.W. has grown beyond Sherman to include a program at Cherokee Middle School that brings in a rotating group of guest chefs. Peter Robertson, a local pasta maker, is a mainstay of that program, teaching a three-day class in ravioli making. While most kids love pasta, he said, very few have any idea how it gets into its box. “It’s like pulling the rabbit out of the hat.”

Miller’s tomato soup class has the same effect on some students, many of whom say they’ve made soup before, but only out of a can. Stirring a pot of almost-ready soup, a seventh grader named Josh describes the experience as “really exotic.” “It’s really strange to make different soup by adding actual ingredients,” he says. Josh and his teammates dish-up the hot broth and bump their bowls together in a toast to their good work. After taking a taste, Josh adds, “I like cooking. It’s awesome. It’s fun making meals instead of getting them in a can or a box and waiting 15 minutes for the microwave to heat up. Right?”

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