Kids in the kitchen
Sherwood Montessori teaches kids about food culture
“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Chef Richie Hirshen and his sous-chef, Jackson Dalrymple, worked side-by-side on a recent Wednesday morning slicing crisp, locally grown Fuji persimmons to go into a festive fall fruit salad, and frying thick, fresh slices of eggplant in olive oil. The delicious smell of the curry sprinkled on the eggplant filled the air in the cozy kitchen. On the counter sat two glass casserole dishes containing a freshly prepared, mouth-watering-looking dessert they called Apple Shazzam.
Occasional, friendly banter between the bright-eyed Hirshen and his eager assistant had to do with the most appealing way to cut the fruit or what was still needed for the sandwiches they were preparing for a “literary tea” for 100 people the following day.
It looked like a scene in any restaurant kitchen, except that this was not a restaurant, and Jackson is not your average sous-chef—he’s an eighth grader. He attends local K-8 charter school Sherwood Montessori, which is where he was preparing food, and where Hirshen has been employed as cooking and gardening instructor since the school’s inception at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.
Jackson’s apprenticeship in the kitchen is just one part of Sherwood Montessori’s overall food-centric curriculum that teaches all of its students in a hands-on fashion what healthful food is, how to grow it and how to prepare it (and eat it!). School lunches are provided by local provider Bridgette Brick-Wells’ Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project.
Jackson and Hirshen were busy making various dishes for two upcoming school events—the tea highlighting students’ literary growth, and the school’s “Feast of Gratitude,” featuring homemade “Montessori Minestrone Soup” and fresh bread from Yankee Hill artisan bakery Miller’s Bake House.
“Everything is vegetarian,” said Hirshen. “I serve no animal protein here. I try to go as vegan as I can, for health and nutrition reasons. I hardly use any dairy. I use low-fat, local, organic and seasonal as much as I can.
“We do use a little bit of cheese,” he continued, “but I never use butter here, only olive oil. And a little rice oil—the cleanest oil there is.” Rice oil, Hirshen went on in exuberant-chef fashion, has a “super-high flash point,” is “really durable and has good flavor—no trans fat, no hydrogenation, no GMOs. It’s the healthiest oil there is.”
Hirshen’s impressive food-world résumé includes more than 25 years experience as a chef in the Bay Area, Italy and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Taproom & Restaurant; he also holds a bachelor’s degree from Chico State in psychology and child development.
He talked enthusiastically of the “full-circle program” of teaching kids to grow vegetables in the school’s organic garden; using the food they grow as well as food gleaned from parents’ and Hirshen’s gardens; composting; and incorporating food into the academic curriculum. Recently, said Hirshen, he taught a class of second- and third-graders the math of how to triple a recipe for crêpe batter.
The school’s students also hold an on-campus farmers’ market every second Friday afternoon, and many of them (including Jackson) are involved in creating a weekly food-focused school newsletter called the Sherwood Montessori S.N.A.C.K. Chronicle & Coloring-Cookbook. S.N.A.C.K. stands for Super Nutritious Activities Collaborations for Kids. A recent issue featured a fun recipe for “Stone Soup,” made with celery root, parsnips, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Yukon Gold potatoes and whole-wheat penne pasta—and, of course, a big, very well-scrubbed stone. A school cookbook is currently in the works.
“I use Miller’s bread only—ever,” Hirshen offered at one point, as he turned the sizzling eggplant slices in the pan.
All of Hirshen’s flours—kamut, spelt, whole wheat and gluten-free—are also from Miller’s, known for its healthful, stone-milled wares. For sweetener he uses local honey “almost exclusively,” with an occasional reliance upon organic cane sugar.
To help illustrate the full-circleness of his program, Hirshen walked outside to the colorful school garden to pick some radish greens to put on the red-bean hummus and persimmon sandwiches he and Jackson were making. Nearby was the school’s compost pile and its little greenhouse full of a variety of plant starts.
“I am in classes or with a class in the garden or schoolyard every day,” Hirshen said. The apples for the Apple Shazzam were cut by fourth- and fifth-graders the previous day “on the red table,” he said, pointing to a red picnic-style table in the school’s play area.
A walk from the kitchen to the classroom of teacher John Howlett yielded comments from Howlett praising Hirshen’s effectiveness.
Howlett said that students’ attendance and participation in academic subjects are good, in part because of the “vocational motivators” offered by Hirshen. Students, he said, complete their work on time so that they have an opportunity to work in the kitchen.
“I tell them, ‘You can’t cook till you do your math,’” said Howlett.
“Richie brings real-world experience,” Howlett added, “and the kids don’t want to let him down.”
Jackson clearly enjoyed what he was doing in the kitchen. But he said he had only begun to learn food preparation at the beginning of the school year.
“The first thing we made [at this school] was a peach salsa,” Jackson explained. “I helped cut the peaches. And I guess it kind of took off from there.”
When asked if he loves to cook, Jackson answered an easy, joyful “yes.”
“I believe that he excels in his school work so that he’s got all this free time—one to two hours a day—for cooking and mentoring,” said Hirshen. “If I mentor Jackson, then Jackson mentors other kids. And Jackson has become very good with kindergarteners and first-graders. And fourth- and fifth-graders. Well, all of them.
“Food is both part of the curriculum,” Hirshen summed up, “and food is sort of a leader in the curriculum.”
“Food is very powerful,” were Jackson’s final words.