Week 6: Ending the Summer Institute in Style

Monday- Chef Kevin
How did you kick off your Monday this week?  Ours started off with a familiar kitchen guest, dried ancho chiles, and enough melted cheese to win over the hearts and minds of our summer students.  Chef Kevin Villalovos, from neighboring restaurant, Cure, made his second appearance in our Chinatown kitchen, this time for a workshop on Mexican food.  Under his guidance, students dutifully chopped their way through piles of cilantro, de-seeded handfuls of leathery ancho chile pods, and kept a watchful eye on whole chickens simmering away in a fragrant bath of water, onion, cumin, and bay leaves.

Assembling our Mexican feast was as easy as it was eye catching.  After a quick dip in hot oil to increase pliability, corn tortillas got rolled around shredded chicken and cheese.  A red splash of enchilada sauce and a dusting of more cheese finished off the Mexican staple, and we all watched in amazement as 5 hotel pans filled up with rolled enchiladas.  The finished plates boasted a scoop of Mexican rice, chocolate colored turtle beans, twin enchiladas, cilantro-flecked pico de gallo, and a buttery mound of fresh guacamole.  It was filling and fresh way to start the last week of program.

Tuesday-Chef's Challenge
After Monday's treat, it was obviously time to switch gears and test the mettle, speed, and resourcefulness of our students.  Were they fully recovered from their enchilada comas?  Were they ready to do battle armed with nothing more than a few food ingredients, a rickety single burner, and their kitchen wits?  There was only one way to find out, and that was the time honored tradition of the Brainfood Chef's Challenge.

After our courageous judges sampled their way through a sweet/savory smoothie paired with french bread, a dish enigmatically titled, "Meat Madness", and a variety of ambitious pasta dishes, they bestowed the mantle of glory upon two worthy teams. Team K.O.F took first place after debuting a spicy coconut pasta dish, and BHG brought home second with a smoothie, a classic mac and cheese, and chocolate covered graham crackers.

Wednesday- Massive Prep
The last two "big events" of the Summer Institute are always Chef's Challenge and  Open Kitchen Night.  Chef's Challenge ups the ante by injecting a little competition into our usual kitchen regimen, and then Open Kitchen Night brings together family, friends, and supporters to recognize and celebrate students' summer accomplishments at Brainfood.

While both of these events are exciting ways to cap off the summer, I think that neither of them quite sums up how far our students have come as well as a much more overlooked day: Open Kitchen Prep day.  This is the behind the scenes madness that takes place the day before our special event, as students prep mass quantities of food with the purpose and pace of a racehorse going lightspeed.  There is also a brief, unnerving moment of fear  that surely passes through other Brainfood staffers' minds besides my own.  It's the split second where you wonder exactly how well you've done your job this summer.  Did we plan enough long classes to build their stamina to succeed today?  Did I thoroughly explain how to batonette potatoes, or are we going to have lopsided fries of varying widths?  And then, the worst fear ever, is this the day that our carefully cultivated sense of community and teamwork reaches its limits? What if this is the day that people just don't work well together?

And yet, every time, this theoretical disaster scenario remains exactly that: theoretical.  The wheels not only stay on the bus, but the bus also runs.  Three students can indeed whittle down 30 pounds of potatoes into fries in an hour.  Our class can crank out food to serve 70 people while remaining calm and civil.  The hotels pans are large enough for our mac and cheese, the cupcakes are not overmixed, and our students carry on with composure and grace.  Open Kitchen was but a day away.

Thursday- Open Kitchen

We couldn't have asked for a better way to celebrate the end of the Summer Institute than surrounded by friends and family, piles of oven baked fries, and proud students.  Great work, everyone! 

Friday- Thai food with Sak
After an exciting week of firsts and lasts, both staff and students were ready for a relaxing final day of program.  Luckily for us, Friday featured the return of Brainfood supporter, restaurant owner, and Thai food guru, Sak Pollert.  With patience and cool, he explained the difference between galangal and ginger, dispensed advice on using fish sauce in Thai cooking, and helped students execute three great dishes.

Mixed vegetables with a light soy sauce, fiery panang curry, and tom yum goong, a lemongrass based shrimp soup, were summery and satisfying.  Not surprisingly, the spicy curry was an instant winner with our students, even though the heat kept them going back for seconds on rice.

The relaxed pace of class gave everyone plenty of time to enjoy their last day cooking together as a group and reflect on the skills and memories gained during a busy summer in the Brainfood kitchen.


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