If you’d walked into the foods room at L’École Phoenix Middle School after hours last Tuesday afternoon, you would have seen about 15 students crying.
They weren’t depressed and they hadn’t just been given life-shattering news or watched a really sad movie. In fact, your eyes would have likely started to react, as well, since they’d been chopping onions in that room for the past 15 or 20 minutes, getting started on the chilli that they were preparing for the school’s upcoming Grade 8 luncheon.
This is the first year for the Junior Chefs Club, as the group is known, and they operate under the guidance of the school’s foods teacher, Tammy Williamson.
Williamson was approached near the end of last year by a young man in her Grade 6 foods class named Diego Christiansen-Barker.
“He came to me with a whole Powerpoint presentation of what a Junior Chef Club could look like,” Williamson says. “How do you say no to that? You don’t.”
So at the start of this school year, Christiansen-Barker announced the club’s formation during the morning announcements one day, and more than a dozen students showed up at the first meeting to see what it was all about.
Christiansen-Barker says his original idea was just that he wanted to work with food a bit more after finishing his first year of foods class, so he thought he would make a little club. But it has turned into much more than that.
“I thought maybe we’d get a few people out. But I never thought we’d get this many people interested in it.”
Williamson was kind of surprised at the enthusiasm being shown, as well.
“I thought some of them would stop showing up,” Williamson says, looking around the room, “but clearly that just didn’t happen.”
But it’s not for class credit. It’s not for bonus marks. What do the kids get out of it?
“They learn new skills,” Williamson says. “They get to take their foods learning a little bit further than we can during my classes.”
Like how to make spring rolls, for example.
“I could never make those with a class of 30, because it’s a skill where you need to have somebody there showing you each step, but I can do it with a smaller group,” Williamson says.
They do actual cooking every other Tuesday. The Tuesday between is for planning and learning.
“The idea of it is that it’s supposed to be really student-run,” Williamson says. “On the planning days, I don’t pick the recipes, they have to bring recipes each time, and then we vote on them and figure out how we’re going to do them. Then the next week we break into groups and, well, we do them.”
At the first meeting, they decided they were going to do “food from around the world,” Williamson says, “and that first day we picked a bunch of countries we wanted to try to do and then narrowed it down. We probably won’t get through them all, but we’re going to do as many as we can.”
The students, thus far, have prepared Italian, English – as in, “traditional food from England” – and Thai food.
Christiansen-Barker says his favourite thing the group has made so far were the sugar cookies, which is funny, in a way, because he’s got celiac disease, so he can’t have gluten.
“I didn’t get to eat them, but they were fun to make and they just looked so good,” he says, turning his attention back to chopping up another carrot for his group’s batch of chilli.
So, how does the school fund all this extra food?
Well, principal Laird Ruehlen gave them some start-up money to get going, but the club has also been helped greatly by a donation from Cermaq, who gave them $600 for supplies, along with a batch of aprons to use.
They also get periodic donations of vegetables from the students’ parents, and Cermaq is also planning on bringing some salmon and have their resident chef, Rob Spiers, come in to teach the kids some salmon preparation methods.
Grade 8 student Elena Russell says she’s there in hopes her time in the Junior Chef Club will help her in a future career path.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good knife skills, and I haven’t even cut myself yet,” Russell says, adding that those skills will come in handy, since she’s hoping one day to open her own bakery, “but if that doesn’t happen I want to be a Home Ec teacher.”