Bite of Brainfood Blog

What's it's really like to volunteer at Brainfood

I was thrilled when I discovered Brainfood on  I had recently moved to DC and was working from home full-time writing my dissertation and looking to get out of the house and get to know my community.  I’m a serious foodie and pretty accomplished home cook, so a youth development program built around cooking seemed perfect.  I envisioned myself skillfully demonstrating dicing an onion or explaining why it was so important to let a roux cook until nice and brown.  Well, there was one problem with that vision, I started at Brainfood in late November, and on my first day I realized, “These kids have already learned how to cook.”  I expected more hand holding would be needed, maybe even a full recipe demonstration, but not for these students.  After our friendly class opening and a very brief introduction to the day’s meal, they split off into groups, started gathering ingredients and tools, and got right to work.  As they started measuring ingredients into small glass prep bowls, I felt like I was watching a cooking show on TV.  So, what was I supposed to do with these capable young cooks that had already, in the first months of the program, learned to work through a recipe and acquired the knife skills to tackle any dish. 

Stop and Smell the Bacon

Part of what I love most about being a Brainfood volunteer is the way in which each of my five senses is piqued every week.

Most obviously, my sense of taste comes into play – how could it not with all of the mouth-watering delicacies prepared by Brainfood participants? Of course, the wafting smells emanating from the warm oven and bubbling stovetop tickle my nose and tantalize my stomach well before the first divine bite of food dances across my tongue.

My eyes rarely deceive me, but I will admit to being skeptical on occasion. How will these aspiring foodies handle a slab of raw duck breast, orange zest, and vinegar?  But, lo and behold, I stand back and watch as a pile of lonely ingredients is finessed by well-practiced hands, chopping, stirring, chiffonading, and folding into one another until – voila!- duck a l’orange is on.


One word: Discovery

If I had to pick one word to summarize my favorite thing about volunteering with Brainfood this year, it would be this: discovery

When I was the age that the Brainfood students are now, like all teenagers, I liked to eat, but I only ate food I knew—my mom’s casseroles and pasta dishes, homemade chocolate chip cookies, North Carolina staples like biscuits and barbeque. The food I enjoyed was delicious, familiar, and comforting, but it was definitely not adventurous or diverse in ingredients or flavors. It was not until I moved to DC, a city so abundant with cuisines from around the globe, that I began to experiment with foods and expand my palate.  Moving here was a revelation to me. I am always jealous of those I meet who are lucky enough to have grown up in this food-town, although most teenagers I have worked with in DC (and I have worked with many) choose to stick, predictably, to teenager-staples such as cheeseburgers and pizza, not even tempted to dabble in the wide array of foods that are available to them.

When I began volunteering at Brainfood, I was heartened by the emphasis that was placed from the start on trying new ingredients and experimenting with different methods and cuisines. And, I was equally impressed by the open-minded attitude of the Brainfood student-chefs. At the beginning of the year, new ingredients and dishes (avocado, ginger, basil, bulgur) were met with wary but intrigued expressions. There was usually some good-natured murmuring about how strange something looked or smelled. But even in the early stages, the students were brave and willing to try anything.  One particular Thursday, I watched with enjoyment as one student tentatively tasted the pesto she had just created for the first time. With the first bite, a look of pleasure and surprise spread across her face. As the classes rolled on, the curiosity only increased as the timidity slipped away. New items were sniffed, felt, and tasted with enthusiasm and wonder. The students’ preconceived notions of what they “do and don’t like” were all but forgotten.

Sharing the Best of the Carolinas with Brainfood

Tomatoes, vinegar, and mustard: three fairly nonthreatening ingredients, right?  But, if you happen to be cooking barbeque in the Carolinas—or in a Brainfood kitchen—they can cause even the best of friends to clash. 

As fellow University of North Carolina alum and guest chef William McKinney (co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbeque) explained to Brainfood students in Columbia Heights, we Carolinians have very strong feelings about which of those 3 ingredients makes for the best barbeque.  As a native western-North Carolinian, tomato wins hands down for me; William, on the other hand, as a South Carolinian, grew up feasting on mustard-based sauces.  As for the vinegar-based version from eastern North Carolina—well, someone else is going to have to speak up for that!

With a vast knowledge of the history and role of barbeque in Carolina culture, William kicked off class with a brief overview of the food over the years. Unfortunately, with only 2.5 hours for class, we didn’t have time for the traditional preparation method, which would have involved at least a pig shoulder (and perhaps the whole thing) and a pit to slow-roast the pork for the better part of a day.

Thankfully, William was able to show the students a good short cut: pork loins he’d been marinating overnight that we could cook in the oven. After we got these heating up, the students gathered the ingredients for the fixin’s—barbequed potatoes, fresh cornbread, and a cucumber and radish salad—and started cooking.

Double Duty

As part of Global Youth Service Day one of our Brainfood classes teamed up with KidPower, a local youth serving non-profit, to collectively bake and donate chocolate chip muffins to a local homeless shelter. For the Brainfood participants, this class provided two opportunities: (1) to work directly with younger children and help them complete a baking recipe, and (2) to use their cooking skills to be resources in their community by making a food donation to a population in need.

When the 11 KidPower students from Amidon Elementary School walked into the kitchen on Thursday afternoon the volume level went from a 2 to a 10. Many of our Brainfood students looked a little nervous.  We quickly went around the room and introduced ourselves and shared our favorite kind of ice cream. Then as a group we discussed the rules of the kitchen and the expectations for behavior.

After putting on aprons and explaining what we were going to be cooking today the anxious KidPower kids were ready for me to stop talking so they could start baking. Groups of 2 Brainfood participants teamed up with 2 KidPower kids to teach them how to make muffins from scratch. The Brainfood participants taught KidPower kids how to read a recipe and how to measure the ingredients correctly. It was a little chaotic as all the groups needed the same ingredients but the staff kept circling the room moving flour and sugar from one table to another. Within no time the buzz of the kitchen had lowered (volume = 6) as the groups were hard at work measuring, mixing, and pouring their batter into the muffin tins.

Pardon the Interruption...

We’re just getting back into gear after a massive website overhaul.  But the digital dust has finally settled, and we’re happy to be able to welcome loyal blog readers to our sleeker, brighter, new home on our website.  Hopefully, you’ll take a minute and look around.  We think you’ll find that the new look was definitely worth the wait.

While our blog and our students have been on a spring break, we’re happy to report that classes are definitely back in action.  Before we post the drool-worthy biscotti pictures from international cuisine, though, here’s a short photo recap of what happened while we were out…

Humble biscuit dough gets madeover as luscious strawberry shortcakes
with fresh whipped cream

“You first eat with your eyes”

Plating and food presentation play a huge role in how we experience food. When a plate of food is put in front of me the first thing I always do is look at it. At this point I’m already calculating if I’m going to enjoy the dish. Just by looking at the plate I can predict if I’m going to have a scrumptious eating adventure or a blah eating experience. Next I take a big whiff, and then that first exciting bite. Now granted sometimes I’m wrong and the gray mush on my plate actually tastes yummy or the beautifully decorated plate of food is too salty or lacks exciting flavors but more often than not that first look is spot on! A well designed plate leads to a delicious meal!

So if plating and presentation is so crucial in our experience with food, you’re probably wondering what types of things you could do to make your plates look delicious? We'll let you in on our secrets... (Thanks to the helpful information from our On Cooking textbook!)

Week 18: Parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme?

At Brainfood we’re all about systems of organization. We label our pantry shelves (baking staples here, vinegars and bottled sauces there) and our fridge shelves (cheese and dairy/vegetables and fruit). Our spices boxes-- they’re alphabetized, thank you. So what was going on when students came into class to find twenty—unlabeled—bowls filled with herbs and spices lined up on their worktables? Herbpocalypse now? Early April Fools? A really, really elaborate chili recipe? Nah, it’s just our annual herb and spice identification challenge.

Put that in your oven and roast it: Chicken at Brainfood

As any Brainfood student (past or present) will tell you, there's always excitement in the air on the first Day We Cook Chicken. I personally think we have a very strong, well-edited lineup for the first third of the program where we focus on baking, grains, and vegetables. Slowly simmered collard greens with chunks of smoked turkey, gooey whole wheat brownies, and a hearty spinach mushroom lasagna, what's not to love? Maybe these recipes aren't what students think of as traditional sources of protein, but still satisfying and filling nonetheless. But I digress...

For whatever reason, the DWCC has a certain perennial appeal. Like the first day of knife skills, the DWCC is an exciting step up, a jaunty new feather for students to add to their culinary caps. Also, cooking chicken is a higher stakes venture. Avoiding drying out chicken breasts, knowing when chicken is fully cooked, and avoiding cross-contamination are common pitfalls that might cause any novice cook a moment of uncertainty in the kitchen--which makes a tasty, well cooked chicken dish even more of a success worth celebrating. And of course, the DWCC provides a drool-inducing preview of future classes (beef, turkey, seafood!).

A Recipe in Pictures: Fake Flake Fried Chicken

1. Rinse, dry, and cut chicken








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