Guest Blogger: Culinary Science Class

Joon-Yee Chuah is a math teacher in Austin, TX who has a culinary science and anthropology elective for 6th grade students. You can read about his misadventures at his blog: or you can view pictures from Kitchen Day 2 on Picasa.
Kitchen Day!
Hi, everyone! I’ve been reading this blog for a while and instead of posting a story about what goes wrong with school lunch, I thought I’d write about an experiment that takes us in the other direction. I teach a culinary science and anthropology elective to 6th grade students in Austin, Texas. I have two classes, one with 30 students and one with 20. Each class meets for two hours around lunch time. Once per six-week grading period, the home economics teacher graciously allows us to use the kitchen laboratory to cook a meal. I call this “Kitchen Day.” This is the first semester I’ve taught the course. I am not a culinary professional by any means (unless you count burger flipping when I was 16) and I resent being called a “foodie”, but I love cooking and I love teaching kids. Therefore, I’m willing to try something as crazy as having thirty students in a kitchen at once.
The Meal
On our first Kitchen Day, my students made a meal consisting of salad, garlic bread, baked ziti and a dessert of chocolate chip cookies. I will admit that at the time I didn’t have nutrition in mind, only economics and difficulty level. For Kitchen Day 2, I set a menu that incorporated several vegetable courses served in a more appealing manner and a protein course. In addition, I allowed the students to select a dessert course. The final menu consisted of:
Greek Salad with Cucumber, Feta and Parsley
Braised Rosemary Chicken with Thyme Mustard Sauce
Vegetarian Alternative: Sear Roasted Green and Yellow Squash
Sweet Onion Rice
Mushroom Ragout
Roasted Asparagus
Cinnamon Rolls
Serving Size
As part of the preparation for Kitchen Day I had my students research what an appropriate serving size of each course should be. They determined that the serving sizes were one ounce of salad, a half cup of rice, three ounces of chicken and a half cup of cooked asparagus. What about the mushrooms and the cinnamon rolls? Well, mushrooms don’t really have anything but dietary fiber so we based our serving size off of “what looks good on a plate” rather than how much mushroom an individual should be served. As for cinnamon rolls, no kid wants to eat half of a cinnamon roll. However, we made the actual cinnamon rolls rather small – about two inches in diameter.
Kids in a Kitchen
This continues to be the most challenging part of Kitchen Day. The smaller of my two classes always seems to be more competent in the kitchen. Perhaps it’s because they have more home kitchen experience, but most likely it is because I can provide more individual attention as a scurry about from group to group. The kitchen laboratory in our school has industrial sinks, three ovens with stove tops, portable electric ranges and a good 50 feet of counter space. Students are broken up into groups by recipe or task and given a space in which to work. Somehow, this still manages to feel somewhat inadequate especially during the class period where I have thirty students.

The top priorities for students in this environment are safety and cleanliness. We do a fair amount of safety and sanitation training and establish a culture of safety awareness before entering the kitchen, including rearranging the tables in my classroom to resemble the real kitchen’s layout and role-playing everyone’s task. We also establish procedures for how to safely move about the kitchen, handle knives, heat and raw meat. I always get a kick out of watching the kids in action carrying around a hot pan shouting, “Hot, behind you, coming through!” and having everyone else scurry out of their way. Students must also adhere to a strict dress code before they are allowed to participate. If a student doesn’t pass dress inspection before we enter the Kitchen, they become my personal assistant for tasks outside the kitchen such as setting up the classroom tables for dining.

My students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and have a broad range of kitchen skills. Some of them have parents who have worked in the food industry and make cooking a big part of their children’s lives. Others have never tried some of the vegetables we served today. (As an aside, I have some kind of disability that prevents me from baking and the kids are much better at it than I.) However, prior home experience is not a strong indicator as to how productive an individual will be on Kitchen Day. Why? Because Kitchen Day, with its 1.5 hour cooking time limit, is less like cooking in a home kitchen and more like working in a professional kitchen where mental traits such as flexibility, plasticity, the ability to multi-task and personal work ethic are more valuable than discrete cooking skills. It’s surprisingly easy to teach a sharp student how to sear roast a pan of squash, but it’s nearly impossible to teach any individual how to always be productive and not stand around doing nothing. I have a good friend who is a chef with 20+ years of experience and he says that this is the number one problem with young cooks in my town.
I went to a restaurant supply store to purchase the majority of ingredients for my class. The caveat is that everything must be purchased in bulk. We’re not talking CostCo levels of bulk (though I did end up getting some items from CostCo.) This is restaurant bulk. For example, I purchased a case of 40 pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast at $1.25 per pound. (I ended up having to split it with my chef friend.) The biggest surprise to me that occurred during purchasing was the high cost of onions. Due to the strange weather that’s been sweeping the nation, yellow onions were $1 per pound at wholesale prices!
My budgetary goal was to lower the cost of ingredients to $2 per student, for a total of $100. I asked the students’ parents for donations of $2 to cover the cost of that day’s lunch. Some of them were not able to provide a donation, but their costs were subsidized either by more generous donations from other parents or by the school. I missed the mark and came in over budget by about $50 after everything was said and done, but I was able to invite a few teachers (whose assistance I could not have done without) to enjoy lunch with the students and I had a decent amount of leftovers.
If we look at this microcosm experiment as an example of what can or can’t be done on a large scale, we need to consider the following:
  • I spent about $3 on ingredients per student
  • If I were cooking for 1000 students (the size of my school) I could have dropped the price per student down by buying more of my ingredients in bulk
  • The $150 price tag only included ingredients. It did not include any uncontrollable costs such as cookware, appliances or utility costs
  • Labor was not a factor. In the business world, it is considered a controllable cost in that a business can decide who to hire, for how long and how much to pay.
  •  If I had a single clone of myself, I could probably manage the entire meal for all fifty students within 2 hours, but that wasn’t the point of this experiment.

Overall, the students made tasty food that they all enjoyed and the experience was overall a positive one. The teachers who dined with us were impressed by what the students were able to accomplish and really enjoyed the meal. If I were to compare my classes, the larger class always seems to make me pull my hair out a little more than the smaller class. They were not able to successfully make the sauce in time, failed to complete one batch of cinnamon rolls and finished fifteen minutes late. Somehow, the dishwashers managed to use half of a bottle of detergent and all 50 of my kitchen towels and still left pots and pans somewhat dirty. A colleague who assists me on the larger class day says that I frequently resemble Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen. On both days when I get home from school, I usually end up doing any left over dishes, skipping dinner (or eating McDonald’s) and going to sleep at 7pm.

Anyway, I hope you all have enjoyed reading my excessively long post. I also hope that it inspires conversation about some of the great things that can be accomplished with school lunch and some of the challenges we have yet to overcome!

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34 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Culinary Science Class

  1. I really think a lot of times we are the ones limiting our children. They're capable of so much more than is typically thought, and this is a good example of that.

  2. What an incredible program! Maybe it doesn't directly solve our nation's school lunch program problems, but it is certainly teaching the next generation about food – real food.

    I applaud you, sir!

    (Mrs. Q – loving these guest posts!)

  3. This has been my favorite guest blog entry — it's not only well-written and very human, but it shows a little glimpse of change, something that seemingly anyone within a school system can accomplish.

  4. Schools that claim they can't prepare from fresh due to cost really aren't trying hard enough. I am an avid cook, especially Thai food, and every year I put together a luncheon of Thai foods for the people I work with. Everything is done from fresh ingredients and this year the cost came to $127 for 51 people in food costs. This meal included:

    Two appetizers
    One salad (green papaya salad)
    One soup (tom kha gai)
    One curry dish (green curry)
    Approximately 20 pounds of jasmine rice
    Two entrees (phad thai and phad gra prah)
    Two desserts (lychee sorbet and coconut custard)
    Four different beverages (no soda at all)

    I do all the cooking myself, so there's obviously no labor charge. If that can be done for less than $3 per person at my cost, schools can and should provide healthy meals for the kids. If I did a normal meal rather than all the options, I could probably get the cost under $1.75 per person using real ingredients.

  5. Wow this sounds like such an awesome class! I might actually like to cook if my school offered something like this. That food looks delicious.

  6. I think this is a great idea! I'm wondering how much you discuss what is healthy as opposed to what is not with your students. Or is the focus more on how to cook?

    It sounds like you need to cut your class sizes down a bit! With it being so popular though, you could probably manage three classes.

  7. Good job! You are a brave man to attempt this! I am glad you were able to pull it off.

  8. @ A.B. England…um, YEAH! We Americans are hover-parenting to such a degree that our children APPEAR hopelessly helpless well into their twenties, when many still even refer to them AS "children." And they ARE capable, they are! A lot more opportunities like to ones described in this posting, both in school but more often and especially at HOME would help all of our kids become more apt and productive and efficient and decisive a lot quicker and earlier than the current trend suggests.

  9. That sounds like an awesome experiment! I'm wondering what you do in class on the non-kitchen days.

    Just a couple of thoughts:
    I'm a little appalled at your choice for a vegetarian alternative. Summer squash is not a filling and satisfying choice, you should have included legumes and whole grains for a more rounded meal.

    Would it be possible to request a couple of parent volunteers for the cooking days? A little more direct supervision and help would have taken some of the stress from you and helped the students stay on task and know what they should be doing when.

    Overall it sounds like a great opportunity for students to learn cooking, nutrition, and how things work (as in the science involved). Keep up the good work!

  10. I absolutely loved this post! What valuable things these kids are learning…planning, preparation, nutrition…and trying new foods, too!

    I wish that there were opportunities like this in my area. The middle schoolers aren't offered any kind of home ec or trade-based courses anymore. If they aren't exposed to these areas, how will they know if they're interested?

    I bring our 12 year old sons into our kitchen and let them cook dinner sometimes…they LOVE it! Of course, I'm always in fear that one of them is going to loose a finger or burn the kitchen down, but so far they've done well.

  11. What a great experiment and post! And the meal sounds delish! I don't wonder that the larger class is more difficult. Thirty 6th graders in a kitchen! It would probably be more manageable at 25-25, or if you had the ability to move some of the students around. Then you could put some of the more competent students in the larger class and some of the less competent students in the smaller class. That way the more competent students could set examples, and you could devote more time and attention to the less competent students in both classes.

  12. Whenever i see the post like your's i feel that there are still helpful people who share information for the help of others, it must be helpful for other's. thanx and good job.

  13. awesome! I hope that a class like this becomes regular curriculum for students!

  14. This is a very interesting post! I think it's great to get kids in the kitchen at home and/or at school and this class sounds like a very adventurous undertaking (especially with the class of 30). Good for you!

    For just a minute I thought the picture was Mrs. Q's lunch and I wondered what kind of luxurious off-site inservice she was attending.

  15. Congrats to you, non-foodie! I think what you're doing is great. I find that children most often have a GREAT time helping out in the kitchen. If only we taught them better, as you have, they might make wiser decisions for themselves as well as growing up to make wise decisions for their families and so on and so forth…

    Congrats, again, on a fabulous project!

  16. This is such a cool project! I wish I lived in Austin (I'm from Houston but live in Arizona now) so that I could help you with your 30-kid class. I would love it if we had programs like this around here, but Arizona education is so in the red I don't think it's viable right now.

  17. Wouldn't it be great if our schools utilized the "free labor" of students to subsidize the paid cafeteria work force? Elementary students can clean up after themselves. Middle school students can act as kitchen assistance in all manner of ways, and with proper guidance and instruction, I daresay high school students could take over the entire operations. AND, as a bonus, everyone learns from the experience (whether it's to take care of yourself, cook, or run the business side.) It's not that far-fetched of an idea if you really think about it.

  18. Wow, I saw the pics. They did a good job! Hats off to you. We had projects like this in 6th grade and junior high. I imagine this is not done much anymore with the emphasis on testing. Hats off to you!

  19. Anonymous @ 9:52 AM:

    How long did it take you? If you counted it as 2 hours at $10 per hour your food and labor would have still been under $3 per portion.

  20. That's awesome! The fact that you fed the teachers reminds me of something that happened in my high school. A few students who loved the cooking class offered in the Home Ec department created a catering class that met in the period before lunch. They catered lunches for the teachers every day (our school had no cafeteria…students and teachers had to bring lunch, go off-campus to eat, eat at the elementary school cafeteria, or do without). They took weekly orders/payments from the teachers so they knew exactly how many meals to prepare. It was a huge hit with the teachers!

  21. This post was just too funny! Thoroughly enjoyed the writing, and I laughed out loud a number of times.

  22. darkomne (5:06pm)-
    I've been doing this luncheon once a year for 6 years now. It takes me about 2-2.5 hours of prep work in the morning and then I cook the courses in progression. Scaling up to larger numbers of people wouldn't add that much time to prep work, maybe 2.5-3 hours for 150 people. Appetizers start at 11am and the last of the desserts is usually done by about 1pm. On average, the food takes about 3-4 minutes start to finish in the wok and each filling of the wok makes enough to serve about 20-25 people in reasonable quantities.

    Taking a look at ingredient costs, I could do an appetizer, a salad, an entree, a dessert, and a beverage with three hours labor for about $2.15 per person (and those are food costs from a wholesale club and not a distributor). It can be done in the schools with the right motivation.

  23. I am awed that this is available to 6th graders. My 6th grade daughter (who can cook quite competently) recently completed our district's version of "Home Ec". They made brownies from a box…but weren't allowed to bake them (not enough time). They made banana bread from a box…which was the limit for my mild-mannered daughter who informed her teacher, "This would have tasted a lot less like cardboard if we had used real bananas."

    I applaud the efforts of anyone who teaches our children REAL cooking skills and kudos to the districts who value culinary education for our children.

  24. @ Kristina…love what your daughter said! Bravo to you for raising a kiddo who recognizes and appreciates REAL food!
    Thank you Mrs. Q and the guest bloggers. My family has been inspired to eat better (nutritionally and "ethically") and start our 8 month old in the right direction. You're changing the future of nutrition for our children one family at a time!!

  25. Congrats on the positivity with the post As you are showing it's easy to create a difference once you change the mindset! DrBill

  26. Joon-Yee, I think this is awesome. How great that these kids are getting a chance to develop a "healthy" relationship with good food. I know it's a lot of work and organization, but the effect this class is having on students…is priceless! I think this is exactly what schools should be doing. Good Job!!!

  27. What a fantastic project! It seems that you have modernized the idea of Home Ec and are teaching life skills. Awesome post – awesome project!

  28. I'm so happy to see more of a "meal planning" approach to learning how to cook- my home ec class (ca. 1994) only focused on carbs! Muffins, pancakes, creampuffs, layer cake, and so on. We certainly learned about food groups in school, but all my practical experience with making a balanced meal came from Mom at home!

  29. My Home Ec class sucked. It was learning how to bake at a proper temperature. the obesity problem in this country is linked to people never knowing how to truly cook healthy from an early age. Kudos

  30. I love this post. Sadly, my kids don't get home ec type classes at school anymore. Their kitchen experience will come from me, a mom with not alot of patience for her own kids sometimes. I would love to have my kids in this teachers' classes. The poster sounds like a great person to spend a day in the kitchen with.

  31. I love to hear stories about teachers doing what's right for the students even when it's hard and takes personal sacrifice! Reminds me there are people in this world that care about helping each other and that together we can make things happen. Please keep doing this with your students! You are making a difference!

  32. Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to more in the future.

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