Bite of Brainfood Blog

Summer starts with a BANG!

Last week was one busy week here at Brainfood! Not only did we bring a group of Brainfood program graduates to the White House but we also started our 6-week Brainfood Summer Institute on Monday June 28th. This year’s summer program is a bit different than previous summers. We decided to have our program in the afternoon to help accommodate youth who may have other commitments or responsibilities in the morning. Youth will attend Brainfood from 1pm - 4pm each afternoon and our curriculum will have a similar design to our after school program – lots of hands-on cooking and experiential learning!

After many weeks of planning our summer staff were so excited to meet our 19 high school aged students on Monday afternoon. We started our program with a BANG! On Day 1, we set our group expectations - the key to Brainfood's success, learned how to measure the "Brainfood way" and how to read a recipe. Our participants picked up all the new skills and vocabulary really quickly and by the end of the afternoon we had made dozens of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (a Brainfood first day tradition).

Spanakopita, Kolokythokeftedes, Baklava—It’s all Greek to us!

From Guest Blogger Kate Essex, weekly volunteer at our Columbia Heights site...

Recently, Brainfood’s Columbia Heights Tuesday class spent an afternoon transporting ourselves to Greece, one of the cuisines nominated by the students for our International Foods unit. After first learning a bit about the food culture and history of the country, we divided into groups and began to tackle some traditional Greek recipes.

Before too long, the kitchen was filled with the happy buzz of students experimenting with new recipes and ingredients, and of course sumptuous smells. Working with phyllo was one of the afternoon’s biggest challenges (and highlights). One group learned the technique of making spanakopita—carefully keeping the delicate layers of phyllo moist with a damp towel, they quickly mastered the art of filling and folding the pastries. Before we knew it, the spanakopita  was in the oven, baking to a golden, buttery brown. Phyllo was also the star at the baklava table, where students carefully prepared the nutty filling and sweet syrup, and assembled and cut finished product for the rest of the class to enjoy in bite-sized pieces. At another table, keftedes (meatballs) were being mixed, formed, and fried in skillets of oil on the stove, filling the kitchen with the smell of sizzling meat. And last but definitely not least, a few students worked on the kolokythokeftedes (zucchini and feta fritters), forming them into small patties and frying them up on the stove. Along with all of this, the students also prepared a cucumber-yogurt sauce to serve as a cool topping for the fried meatballs.

Gumbo, Lamb Sausage & Cakes: Oh My!

You're probably thinking...weird combination, right? Well not for Brainfood! Over 2 exciting weeks in March the Brainfood Columbia Heights kitchen was filled with guest chefs bringing new ingredients, new skills and a ton of new food knowledge for our youth.

A BIG Brainfood thank you to Mike Clements (Executive Chef of Social), Lynnette Jackson (Owner/Chef of Lynnette's Cakes and Catering), and Dean Gold (Owner/Chef of Dino)!

First up was Mike Clements from Social in Columbia Heights. Mike's passion for cooking started when he was very young but blossomed when he moved to New Orleans. It's his love for cooking and for all things New Orleans (especially his beloved Saints) inspired his Brainfood menu. Mike brought all the fixings to make Red Beans and Rice (with Andouille sausage) and Gumbo. The class divided up into 2 teams, put on our Social hats, and worked diligently chopping & dicing. One brave student took on the task of stirring & stiring to make the roux the perfect bronze color. After some good teamwork we got a chance to dig in and enjoy! Mmm it was delicious! After a lively discussion about which dish they enjoyed more I noticed two things were universal – empty bowls and smiling faces! Thanks Mike!

Spotlight on Student Engagement

From Guest Blogger Amy Dziekonski….
Amy is a Program Officer at the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation and recently visited our Brainfood Kitchen for her annual site visit. She later wrote an article for her organization’s monthly newsletter about her day at Brainfood.

Here’s what Amy had to say:

Brainfood, I sometimes joke, is a great grantee because they feed me at the end of every site visit. I must admit that this is a pretty nice perk for being their program officer, but the real reason I love to step into their kitchen has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with their young people. Let me take you, for a moment, into their kitchen…

It’s a cold January night around 4 pm in an industrial kitchen in the basement of a church in the heart of Chinatown. The space is filled with twenty DC high school students chatting about upcoming exams, admiring a classmate’s new cell phone, and discussing the silly thing a teacher did at school that day. Mixed in with this crowd you will find Brainfood staff member Carina Gervacio and three Brainfood volunteers conversing with the students.

The first thing that strikes you is how at ease these high schoolers are in this kitchen.  You must first know that these students come from neighborhoods all over DC. They represent a diverse array of backgrounds, personalities and interests. Many had never met before they showed up for the first day of Brainfood a few months ago. And yet there is already a palpable level of comfort and camaraderie between these young people and the staff.

Carina checks the clock—it’s a bit after 4 pm—and announces it’s time to start. Everyone quickly circles up around her table. It’s apparent by the small piece of chicken on the cutting board in front of her that today’s class is on chicken wings. But before she gets to that she pauses to have each participant and volunteer say their name and what they would like to work on today. “I want to work on my knife skills”, “I want to focus on following the recipe”, or “I want to be a good group member” are some of the goals shared. They are all greeted with a positive nod or word from Carina who finishes the circle with her own goal for the class. No one is left out.

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From Guest Blogger Natalia Barolin, weekly volunteer at our Columbia Heights site...

As Carina feared in her recent post, the snow this season has been relentless and Brainfood was snowed out through the Valentine’s Day class. With schools closed for Presidents Day we’ll transition back with a short week and I for one am anxious to dig out and dig into class this week.

In the meantime, the Chinatown class was not the only one with a guest chef adventure to reflect on. On the eve of the first of two huge snow storms (given a flurry of nicknames like snowpocalypse or snowmageddon), we had Chef Robert Barolín, from the City Square Café in Old Town Manassas, Virginia teach us how to work with shrimp and introduce an Italian menu of bruschetta, homemade Italian dressing, and Mediterranean shrimp. This was a particularly special day for me because Chef Robert is also my dad and the menu included some of my favorite dishes.

My dad eased right into class with his gregarious personality and charming accent that drew the kids right in. My Dad is from Uruguay where the cuisine is traditionally based on its European roots (ours in Italy), which characterize his cooking.

A few of the students have been to Italy and were excited to learn more about the food and hear about our family background. But despite some familiarity with Italian cuisine, the class was defined by firsts.

Pots, Stock, and 6 Roasting Chickens


Chef Kevin demos preparation of mirepoix

With nothing but more snow on the horizon, Brainfood did not meet this Monday or Tuesday.  The plating and presentation workshop has been put on hold, and we’re crossing our fingers and hoping the Valentines Day class doesn’t get snowed out as well.  As we take our brief snow intermission, however, it seems like an appropriate time to recount a recent kitchen adventure from the Chinatown Monday/Wednesday class.  Just before DC got snowed-in, Brainfood students were treated to the return of a much anticipated, seasonal favorite: the guest chef.  

Fishes and More Fishes

From Guest Blogger Stephanie Blyskal, longtime Brainfood volunteer...

What the fish?!?!

We were lucky to have a guest chef for the day: Teddy Folkman, chef at Granville Moore’s on H Street, NE, long-time Brainfood volunteer, Food Network bon vivant and all-around great guy. With Teddy’s enthusiasm, how bad could the 33-pound halibut be? The students had no idea that they were about to confront a giant fish. The reactions ranged from “ew” to “wow”. Chef Teddy explained the different parts of the fish, why it looked the way it did (two eyes on one side of its head) and how to break it down. Two brave souls from class helped out in skinning the halibut.

Brainfood kitchen=completely ordinary & absolutely extraordinary

From Guest Blogger William McKeithen, Brainfood Fall Intern...

I originally came to Brainfood as an intern because I believed in the mission of Brainfood to spread culinary knowledge as a vital skill set for any young teen growing up to be independent. I admit that I imagined some sort of conservatory where everyone showed up in white coats everyday. When I came to the first day of Brainfood, what I realized is that the Brainfood kitchen is for these teens both completely ordinary and absolutely extraordinary. When they come in, they don’t change who they are; their demeanor stay pretty much the same (though sometimes I think the strangeness of the industrial kitchen we work in can have a quieting effect); and they aren’t putting any special hat on that they might feel they need to when sitting in a boxy desk. Yet at the same time, I know from seeing them cook that Brainfood is a unique experience for them and not anything like what they normally get to do.

The other thing that surprised me was the first time we introduced ourselves and what we expected from ourselves throughout the process. There is such a dynamic mix of students who really want to learn to cook, who even think about being a chef, to students who just wanted something to do and have grown into a love of the kitchen and its special formulas and quirks.

How much I have learned since September!

From Guest Blogger Meg Wexler, Brainfood Fall Intern...

It is officially the holiday season, and all of us at Brainfood are busy with preparations for our big Holiday Celebration. Participants are getting ready to show their friends and families how much they have learned, and I think I’m just beginning to realize how much I have learned since September.

As soon as I heard about Brainfood this August, I knew I wanted to be a part of the organization. There was only one small problem – I wasn’t particularly experienced in the kitchen. Still, with a background in youth enrichment and a passion for all things edible, I came to class excited to meet the participants and hone my own skills. In many ways, I think being able to learn knife skills and other techniques alongside the students made it easier for us to connect. I have sought culinary advice from volunteers and students alike!

Learning these skills was surprisingly easy, and I think the students will agree. I have my own hypothesis for why this might be. Brainfood classes are full of mutual respect that comes from every participant’s eagerness to learn. When the students were asked to reflect on their time at Brainfood so far, many of them marveled at how necessary and effective teamwork could be. At Brainfood, no man is left behind – not even the intern who can barely tell when cookies are ready to come out of the oven!

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