Food Matters: Life Skills or Career Path?
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TWO HIGH-SCHOOLERS—chefs-in-training—are sautéing freshly cut filets of rainbow trout in brown butter with sliced almonds when, suddenly, a plume of flames flashes over the skillet.
“Wheeew!” the students exclaim, followed by a chorus of giggles. The culprit: lemon supremes tossed into the hot pan over the gas burner.
“Citrus oil is super flammable,” booms chef-instructor Matt Maier, now facing the commotion in the kitchen classroom. “Turn it waaay down. And careful with the capers, because they’re in liquid, as well. I’d take some capers out (of the jar).”
The boys add that final ingredient, flip off the burner, slide the golden-brown fish from pan to plate and make it rain with freshly chopped chives. Mission accomplished—and nobody got burned.
Seven students here in Carbondale’s YouthEntity after-school ProStart culinary arts and restaurant management program—representing varying ages from high schools in Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs in the Roaring Fork School District—have already watched chef Maier demonstrate a slew of basics in tonight’s three- hour seafood lab. They’ve learned how to break down a whole fish; whip together scallop mousseline (fluffy, savory filling); and cut a lemon into seedless supremes (soo-prems, not soo-preems, as they’ll be quick to correct you).
Most crucial, though, are the whys, which five-year instructor Maier addresses in rapid-fire during his laid-back, we’re-pals-in-the-kitchen approach. Some might say that this method is one reason why YouthEntity’s ProStart team—which follows a national curriculum during a rigorous, two-year program—has competed at the regional, state and national levels now three years in a row.
“What might affect the oil content of a fish?” Maier asks.
Snapper and grouper are flakier because they swim hard for a living; no need to store excess insulation like fatty black cod.
“What could lead to flavor profiles in the fish we’re eating?”
Diet: fish that “crush shellfish” usually have a desirable sweetness.
“What are some cook-ing methods?”
The students call out answers: steaming, frying, roasting, searing, using acid.
“Grilling it? I could, but trout’s a little tricky to grill because it’s kind of delicate,” Maier continues. “I might wrap it in bacon (or) banana leaf. What kind of knife should I use when I butcher fish—rigid or flexible?”
“Flexible!” the students reply in unison.
In fact, tonight’s lesson begins by butchering a protein that even many untrained home cooks may never prepare: octopus.
“Cephalopods—that means ‘head-feet’—this group of animal has beak-feeders,” Maier says. “First thing I want to do is remove the face, because most of us don’t get down with face. I’m gonna make an incision above and below the eyes; that exposes the mouth. Then I come down here…”
The class erupts in choking noises followed by laugher.
“…and pop the beak out.”
“Yooo, that’s sick!” one student exclaims.
“The beak—this is chitin, one of the harder substances known to man,” Maier continues. “A giant Pacific octopus could take chunks out of you and bone along with it.”
Maier slices up the tentacles and tosses them into a pressure cooker preloaded with stock, tomato paste and aromatics.
“Why do we use a pressure cooker? By increasing the pressure in a vessel, we’re lowering the temperature (at which) water boils,” Maier explains. “Up here at altitude, water boils at a lower temperature because we have less atmospheric pressure. So, I can cook stuff incredibly quickly under pressure at fairly reasonable temperatures—150, 160 degrees—to get the effect of having cooked it four to five hours.”
Following Maier’s detailed demonstration of butchering whole trout into tidy filets, the students set up their stations and get to work. Afterward, they’ll prepare the filets two ways: stuffed with scallop mousseline and then shallow-poached and sautéed into trout amandine. All are new to the program; many have never butchered fish nor tasted octopus before.
“The first class was breakfast. We learned how to make eggs, crêpes, all that stuff,” says Daniel Yoshimura, 17, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School. “A few weeks ago we (butchered) chicken and cooked (it) a bunch of different ways. I cook at home a lot but there are a lot of things I don’t know. I haven’t butchered a fish. Tuesday we’re going to a food show in Vail, tasting food at different stands.”
The 12-chapter curriculum comprises culinary coaching à la Maier (basic knife skills, sanitation, soups/stocks/sauces, butchery, bakeshop basics, and international cuisine) as well as restaurant-management principles (marketing, purchasing, cost analysis) taught by ProStart business instructor and YouthEntity executive director Kirsten Petre McDaniel.
“For the (second semester) competition team, they have to cost out all of the ingredients for their appetizer, entrée and dessert based on a set markup, so that the meal doesn’t go above $75 retail,” McDaniel explains. “This industry lives and dies on pennies at a time; they (must) understand the math behind the business side … which can be applied to any type of industry.”
Being an extracurricular elective, the class tends to attract kids who are curious at least and passionate at most.
“We have a high percentage of kids who carry on to pursue an education,” notes Maier, previously a CMC culinary instructor. “Former students went to the CIA and Johnson & Wales; finished training in Austria. The level of impact we can have in this community with the students is incredible. We’ve been able to win the state of Colorado the last three years and go to nationals, and get a lot of money to kids who may not have had it to continue education. It’s probably the most important thing I’ve done.”
Similarly, these students recognize a unique opportunity when they see it.
“My dad’s a chef, so I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing,” says Henry James Butchart, 15, of Basalt High School, while fileting a trout. “He mentioned (ProStart) one time, and I thought it would be cool to do an extracurricular because I don’t really do sports. He says this is a whole ride through culinary school—culinary school in a nutshell. I’m testing the waters.”
Others have clear goals. “I’m planning on becoming a chef,” proclaims Elijah Wood, 16, of Roaring Fork High School. “I think about traveling around the world then writing a cookbook.” He pauses, no doubt reflecting on his future. “Even if I don’t become a chef,” he backtracks, “it doesn’t hurt to know how to cook.”
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