Aspen Times Weekly: Science Fare
October 26, 2015
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I'M SITTING at the back of a high-school classroom in Carbondale when I get a panicky sense of déjà vu. Our teacher has just outlined part of today's lesson plan: fractions.
The dozen students fidgeting on stools behind stainless-steel worktables seem to share my anxiety. However, this is no ordinary science lab. There are notebooks and binders at each station, of course, but also cake pans, measuring cups, spatulas, cutting boards, and a glossy red Kitchenaid stand mixer. Shelves at the back of the room are stocked with cookbooks, not lab manuals. In place of chalkboards are professional-grade convection ovens, as well as YouthChefs instructor Kelly Yepello's workstation, set beneath an angled mirror hanging from the ceiling like those at food festival cooking demos. No acrid odor of harsh chemicals and Bunsen burners here—instead, the room smells like gingerbread muffins.
"Do the recipe times one-and-a-half," Yepello instructs, as we review our sheets. The recipe calls for two teaspoons of salt to make two 9-inch vanilla cakes, but tonight the students are making an extra cake to take home. How much salt, then, do we need to make three cakes? Some kids seem perplexed, until Basalt High School junior Esteban Santoyo—clearly the math whiz of the group—jumps from his seat to scribble the conversion on a white board: "Three teaspoons."
"Three teaspoons equal one tablespoon," Yepello says. "These are formulas. The way you figure out if you've done your scientific experiment properly is whether or not you can eat it and enjoy it."
Founded in 2009, the YouthChefs program draws high-school students from across the Roaring Fork School District (Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs) to learn baking and pastry arts in this tricked-out commercial kitchen at Bridges High School. The credited class meets after school twice weekly for three hours each in this classroom, which was remodeled in 2011 with more than $35,000 raised by YouthEntity, a community and youth development initiative based in Carbondale. (The nonprofit leases the space for YouthChefs as well as restaurant management and culinary arts program ProStart.) Since 2012, the group has invested an additional $10,000 for more improvements and equipment.
"Without the support of individual donors and the RFSD kitchen space, we would not be able to offer these programs," says YouthEntity president Kirsten Petre McDaniel. "The cost of these programs is substantial: $1,000 per student for YouthChefs (one-semester) and $5,000 per student for ProStart (two semesters). However, tuition for YouthChefs is just $50; ProStart $100."
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It's paying off. In 2014 the YouthEntity program was recognized by Sullivan University's National Center for Hospitality Studies as one of the top 50 programs in the country—the only recipient in Colorado. Many graduates go on to pursue degrees in culinary arts and hospitality management. Even if they don't, they learn a crucial skill on the verge of disappearing with the next generation: How to cook.
Leah Allen, a senior at Roaring Fork High School and YouthChefs teaching assistant for the second year, completed the baking and pastry program as a sophomore. Last year she joined the ProStart culinary competition team, which won the state championship in Denver (after placing second to the rival Aspen ProStart team at regionals). Many YouthChefs students go on to ProStart; some students begin ProStart before seguing into YouthChefs—each offers a unique learning experience. YouthChefs doesn't claim the competitive aspect of ProStart, but it offers real-world catering experience (see "Extra Credit," opposite page).
"It's always interesting to have pastry kids in ProStart—I was a pastry kid," Allen says. "The mindset you develop in [YouthChefs] is way different from the mindset you use in competition. Savory chefs think on their feet. And savory food, from the minute it comes out of the walk-in to the moment it goes on the plate, it looks like food. Pull a carrot, chop it up, eventually it turns into soup—it looks like food the whole time. Whereas in this class, we have batter-y weirdness for a long time, then it gets baked and looks like food. You can't [alter] an ingredient, because you think it will turn out better. It affects the whole ratio."
Now the kitchen classroom is a whirlwind of activity: Students haul ingredients from the cooler, measure tiny spoons of vanilla, and chop blocks of butter. One student wears flour on her cheek like tribal face paint. Another is focused on cutting a perfect circle of parchment paper. When one boy—the clown of the group, evidently—cracks an egg into the mixing bowl before creaming the butter and sugar, the giggling uproar grabs Yepello's attention. "Read the recipe!" Yepello crows. "We'll fix this. Let's start over."
Later, Yepello tells me that while the class is rooted in chemistry and math, her objective as YouthChefs instructor for the past three years is to impart basic life skills.
"We try to build self-confidence," says the pasty chef of thirty years and proprietor of Yepello Chocolates & Confections in Steamboat. "The next day, some of the kids were bummed out because their cakes didn't turn out as professionally as they wanted them to be. But it's like: 'How many times have you made a cake? How many times have you tried to make nice little shell borders?' If the answer is 'never,' then this is an outstanding cake!"
A few nights later, I dine at Allegria Restaurant in Carbondale. I expect to see chef-proprietor Andreas Fischbacher, a big supporter of the YouthChefs and ProStart programs. (In fact, his daughter, Flora, 19, completed both programs while a student at Glenwood Springs High School and is now studying hotel management and culinary arts in Fischbacher's native Vienna.) A pleasant surprise, though, is when YouthChefs TA Leah Allen pops her head out of Allgria's bustling kitchen to say hello. She is beaming. She is in her element.
"In class, [Leah] was saying that Andreas wants to add more seasonal things to the dessert menu, and we were hashing it out," Yepello says. "Here are high-school kids who want all the random information you've absorbed for 30 years. You step outside your personal bubble: How do you focus these kids and get them on some road with foodservice and pastry arts? At the very least you give them basic survival skills that will help them through life."
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