Bite of Brainfood Blog

Musings and Marvels from Brainfood's Urban Kitchen Garden

I get to witness the growth of a kale plant from seed to plate approximately 60 times each growing season in the Brainfood Youth Garden. And when you consider the hundreds of plants that I watch grow through a full life cycle each year, it would make sense to assume that germination/flowering/fruiting/death/compost is just the day-to-day work schedule. And it is. 

But dang! Even as an expected part of my everyday work life, I can’t help but marvel at the tiny leaves still clinging to their split seed as they grow towards the sun. Or the three-foot beast of a kale stem that I throw into my compost bin at the end of summer. It kind of looks like its covered in dragon skin, the scales of which are actually scars where the plant healed itself after each leaf I harvested.

Disconnect to Connect (Finding Your #BestFriend at #Brainfood)

The following post is a second guest blog entry from Rexan Dayao, Brainfood's Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative fellow!

For today’s youth, establishing connections and engaging in meaningful friendships can be  somewhat of a struggle due to the presence of things like cell phones and tablets. Gone are the days when people just sit down and talk instead of posting everything that is happening to their social media platforms. Although it is a primary need of human beings to connect, many of us tend to forget how to focus on what truly matters. Instead of talking to people around us, we sneak onto social media platforms to get glimpses of someone else’s life.  Sometimes it is necessary to disconnect with your gadgets in order to connect with people who are actually around you.

At Brainfood, one instructor has a creative solution to this concundrum:  a cell phone soup pot. Participants are asked to drop their phones into a large stockpot (empty, of course) if they are caught using it during the cooking classes. That way, youth learn a sense of focus in accomplishing things in the kitchen without the distraction that phones can provide. Not only does this help them prioritize tasks in the kitchen, it also provides an environment more conducive to real connection. Because of this, they are happy with what they’ve done when the day ends.

Even when we disconnect from technology, forming new connections can be challenging! So how do you effectively connect with people you just met?
You need to break the ICE (Initiate, Connect & Engage)!
Imagine you are a Brainfood Kitchen all Stars participant. At the beginning of class, you will be  asked to first gather in a circle and share your desired Group Expectation for the day. The instructor then provides some information about the theme or topic for the day, facilitates a discussion, and gives an overview of the recipes. Then, you are handed a recipe: merely a piece of paper with list of ingredients and measurements, plus a guide to the process of how to prepare the dish. The interesting aspect of  this approach is that the instructor will not tell you what to do  every step of the way; you need to discover things on your own. Thus, you need to INITIATE. You need to ask other people questions, work together to get materials, and take on the recipe as a group. In less than five minutes, you’ll realize that you have taken  the first step to making a friend: to initiate. 
Asking about the cooking process or a certain materials will then lead you to asking personal questions in order to get to know more about your newfound friend. You’ll be curious to learn more about this friend’s personalities and hobbies. In another five minutes you may discover that both of you have the same interest or you  live in the same neighborhood. That conversation will give you a certain sense of connection.
While the muffins or cake are in the oven, or while some others are mixing the salad, both of you might be putting things away in the pantry or beginning to set up the plates. You get to engage in meaningful tasks, working together to achieve a shared goal that brought you closer in less than an hour. That’s the kind of connection that you don’t have every day, especially when you are too occupied maximizing the use of your gadgets.


Technology is really useful. But nothing can replace a meaningful conversation with friends. At Brainfood, you can learn that life is all about interaction, discoveries and finding yourself. It will give you the opportunity to break away from the monotony of life by exploring the wonders of the kitchen. When you initiate, connect and engage, you get to fulfill the human need to be self–actualized and be part of a working group. You might even find your best friend at Brainfood! You just need to disconnect in order to connect.


Finding One’s Spark in the Kitchen

This blog post is a guest post from our Rexan Dayao, a fellow with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative who is working with us at Brainfood this month. Rexan shares his impressions from his first day at Brainfood Kitchen All Stars!

It has been a long day for youth who have spent hours studying at  their respective schools. Yet, instead of heading towards home or to do other things, they have opted to participate in Brainfood’s Kitchen All Stars. It is a year-long program (October - May) that introduces participants to life skills and leadership skills through food and cooking. Participants have the opportunity to learn about food, nutrition, cooking, and jobs in the food industry through activities, games, restaurant visits, cooking in our kitchen, and working with guest chefs.
On the first day of Brainfood Kitchen All Stars, participants started coming in around 3 pm. 

They signed in and handed in waivers and permission slips. Some eagerly asked Amanda, Brainfood staff member and instructor of Kitchen All Stars at Columbia Heights,  about what is on the menu for the day. Most were just quiet, probably trying to find opportunities to connect with individuals they just met. There were 18 youth, 2 volunteers and myself, an intern from Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).
Amanda started the session by asking participants to introduce themselves, followed by an icebreaker game which helped to release their inhibitions. Each one was also asked to create a Group Expectation. Then each participant picked one goal to focus on for the day, which intends to make sure that everyone will participate diligently. In addition to the list of Group Expectations created by the students, we also have the “Brainfood No-Brainer” which lists things that they should not do while in the kitchen in order to keep all students safe  
At 4:30 pm, Amanda handed them the recipes and the participants started measuring ingredients. At some points in the process, the youth were not sure what to do next, which ingredients needed to be measured, how much, and how many. They were confronted with lots of questions and they needed to make  decisions quickly so that the cookies would be in the oven by 5 pm.

There's No Stopping Our Kitchen All Stars

Two weeks ago, over 100 students from fourteen different DC high schools gathered in our three Brainfood kitchens across the city, eager to meet new people and explore all aspects of food and cooking. Some are returners—teens who have been with Brainfood for two, three, four, or even five programs over the course of their high school careers. Some are just entering our kitchens for the first time.

Students in our first-year program, Kitchen All Stars, represent a variety of levels of experience in the kitchen. However, all of our first-year participants can now say they have an ongoing list of kitchen knowledge under their belts. After just three Brainfood classes, Kitchen All Stars have encountered at least 33 different ingredients and over 33 different pieces of kitchen equipment. And we’ve only just begun our introductory baking unit.

From A to Z, check out the ingredients and tools that have already made an appearance or two in Kitchen All Stars:

5 Ways You Know It's the First Week of Kitchen All Stars

Last week, we kicked off another year of Kitchen All Stars at Brainfood.  Of course, every year is different: new students, new volunteers, new recipes, and lots more. But at the same time, there are some aspects of Brainfood that hearken back to years past and feel as familiar as a worn-in sweater or a favorite rerun. It's wonderful to see those tell-tale signs that Kitchen All Stars is starting up again, and that it looks more or less like they did last year. Because as exciting as it is to experience fresh starts and new beginnings ripe with possibility, it's just as special to see what stays the same. We put together a list of some snapshots from class last week that exemplify those classic Kitchen All Stars first week moments. 

 1. Students are reading their recipes very closely.

 As teachers, we love to see two teens tracking the steps of the recipe with their fingertips! This kind of careful attention is especially necessary early in the program. 

Feeling Ready

Let me introduce myself. My name is Julie and I am a new Kitchen All Stars instructor with Brainfood this year. As a member of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, I applied for this position with Brainfood with the hope of bringing together my love for food, my interest in promoting community engagement in youth , and my passion for social justice. By working at Brainfood, I hope to bring together both the “foodie” and the “social science nerd” in me!


                   We made sage cornbread for our
              Weekly Classroom Assitant orientation

My first few weeks at Brainfood have been filled with organization, planning, and preparation. Brainfood staffers have been travelling all over the District for student recruitment, orientations, and trainings of all sorts. 
While it’s been interesting to see all the different neighborhoods that surround where we live and work, migrating all over the city has left me feeling a little unsettled. As such, I was thrilled when I was given two days last week to spend alone in the  kitchen, organizing and cleaning the space. 

Box Project: Highlights and Big Winners

Hey DC eater. Did you miss out on Brainfood Box Project this summer? Maybe your travel schedule had you leaving town every weekend, or your fridge space was already reserved for fresh veggies from another farm’s CSA. Whatever the reason, hold onto your hat and open up your google calendar, because after reading this highlight reel and seeing a selection of this year’s winning recipes, you’ll be itching to plan way ahead for next year’s Box Project CSA.

The Highlight Reel

  • 16 amazing youth (ages 14 - 20)
  • 2 full time staffers
  • 1 part time intern
  • 1 part time volunteer
  • 16 subscribers
  • 6 weeks of handmade, farm fresh boxes
  • 9.65 out of 10 in overall customer service rating
  • 30 prepared foods (5 or 6 recipes each week)
  • 32 varieties of local fruits and veggies
    • Sweet corn

If Julie Andrews Were in High School Musical: A School Recruitment Update

Well, here we are: the calendar page has been flipped, and the air—while still humid—offers a soft breeze to remind us that fall is around the corner. September means it’s time, once again, for school recruitment. Brainfood staffers have been transitioning from summer programs to preparing for the new school year. But there’s still one very important piece missing… teen participants! These next couple weeks we’ll be visiting high school lunchrooms and after school fairs throughout the city, sharing information about Brainfood programs and handing out applications to interested students. It’s a fast-paced and exciting time of year.

So in both complete seriousness and silliness, here’s a list of our favorite things about recruiting in DC high schools:

1. An obvious but oh-so-genuine favorite is sharing in new students’ excitement and curiosity about

Pupusas 101

During the time between summer and school year programs, Brainfood staffers have lots to do: between writing reports, planning for after-school programs, organizing the kitchens and office, and more, our plates are pretty full. Yet in the midst of all this, we took some time last week to enjoy each other’s company and try our hands at a new kitchen skill: the art of making pupusas. The pupusa is a culinary endeavor that some of us had tried before, but had never really mastered. It comes up on the Brainfood Student Requests list almost every year, we've all heard about different fillings and styles, and we all have our favorite pupuseria in Columbia Heights or Mount Pleasant.  It’s definitely a fixture of our lives, so we wanted to experiment with some recipes and hone our technique. 
We were lucky to have a great teacher, Teresa, a chef who we share kitchen space with at our Mount Vernon site. She generously took the time to show us her technique and coach us through the process. Once we learned from the master, we gave it a try by ourselves, and we were pretty pleased with the results. For all you aspiring pupusa makers out there, here's a step-by-step overview of the process! 
Step 1: Make Your Fillings
We went with black beans (lovingly hand-mashed by Amanda!), shredded pork, and a sauteed summer squash veggie mixture. Of course, all three got a generous sprinkling of a delicious mild white cheese, labeled specifically as cheese for pupusas.

Finding Purpose: A Zucchini’s Perspective of Hopes and Aspirations in the Brainfood Kitchen

Typically at Brainfood we work with high school students, work that inevitably provides Brainfood staff with a bounty of hilarious and heartwarming stories to share on our blog. But in the lull between summer and fall programming, it seemed like a good time to share another story of growth and development that has happened on-site. What follows is a unique account of the path from seed-to-table by Zelda the Zucchini, born and raised in the Brainfood Youth Garden.

Photo credits to Aimee McLaughlin for the incredible portrait! Thanks Aimee!)

Hello there, my name is Zelda. I am a zucchini. What does being a zucchini mean to me? That’s a good question. I’ve been a zucchini all my life, so it’s hard for me to think outside my glossy green skin. But I will try.

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