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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 11:50 pm

This isn’t your mother’s home ec

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High school students learn knife skills, crucial for the kitchen.

I wish I could go back to high school.

I never thought those words would pass my lips. Even more bizarre — I want to take home ec classes.

I avoided home ec like the plague in high school. Sewing didn’t interest me, and my mom told tales about the gruesome foods she’d made in home ec. Mom still half-laughs, half-shudders about the prune whip. My high school’s home ec classes reputedly weren’t any better.

Then I met Sara Riley.

Of course, it’s not called home ec these days. Now it’s “Family and Consumer Sciences,” though an updated title doesn’t necessarily change content.

But I’d heard Riley was innovative, teaching awareness of good food from both health and culinary standpoints at Normal Community West High School. That’s why I’d come to observe her and her classes. Both exceeded my expectations — and were so exciting that I smiled all the way back home.

As I walked in, a class was winding up. Riley was talking about the benefits of fermented foods such as yogurt and yeasts (no alcohol) and probiotics. Slender — almost wiry — with close-cropped hair and bursting with energy, Riley doesn’t look much older than her students, especially dressed as she was in clogs, jeans and a t-shirt. But there was no doubt that she was in charge.

Riley not only doesn’t look like a typical home ec/FCS teacher, her education and career path leading to teaching high school food classes are equally untraditional. She entered the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) immediately after high school. That itself is unusual; the CIA requires incoming students to have a minimum six months of restaurant experience. But since Riley had been working at Detroit’s Ritz-Carlton during high school, she qualified. “It was pretty intimidating,” she says. “I was younger than everybody else, and less skilled.” Riley made it through the notoriously demanding two-year curriculum, though, earning her associate degree there before finishing with a B.S. in Hospitality Management in Miami.

Having worked in many aspects of the restaurant business, from kitchen, catering, front of house and hotel food service, Riley eventually landed at Chicago’s Four Seasons hotel as a junior food manager. “I was on the fast track, moving up the ladder,” she says. “But the hours were exhausting, and I’d always had it in the back of my mind to teach in some way.” Riley enrolled at Illinois State University for her teaching certification. For the last three years she’s brought her fresh and unique approach to teaching high schoolers how to cook.

They’re learning how to prepare good, real food. Prepackaged, processed foods aren’t found in Riley’s kitchen. Students slice and sauté fresh mushrooms, roast whole heads of garlic and strip fresh thyme leaves from their stems and mince them to make Roasted Garlic Mushroom Crostini. Olive oil is used for those as well as for the Caramelized Onion Marmalade Crostini. Technique is emphasized: knowing what’s meant by sautéing, braising, stir-frying and roasting, and how they’re done. Riley emphasizes knife skills in all her classes, one of the most crucial skills for professionals. Riley’s first-level class is Culinary Arts, which centers on the basics — especially including those knife techniques. It’s a prerequisite for Food For Thought, where students get more sophisticated in their cooking and other food knowledge. A third class is Lifestyle Management, held in conjunction with a P.E. component. Even there, Riley works to boost students’ skills and critical thinking levels as well as their awareness of healthy eating.

Today’s Lifestyle Management class topic is antioxidants. Students are given a handout listing high-antioxidant foods high such as cocoa, blueberries, apples and pecans. They’re making a smoothie. “This is a new recipe,” Riley tells them. “So I’m open to creative suggestions. We’re going to be practicing our knife skills, so cut the kiwi fruit into small dice, and cut the orange sections from between the membranes.”

“Sometimes I use recipes from cookbooks,” she tells me. “But usually I make them up so that there’s something for everyone to do.”

Signs of Riley’s professional training are everywhere. Students prepare their mise en place, a French term meaning “put in place.” Usually referred to by cooks as “meese,” in the kitchen it means having everything measured and at hand before beginning. The towel dispenser in every kitchenette displays a sign with titles for each member of the team: Sous Chef, Commis, Sanitor, Supplier — classic (again, French) professional kitchen positions, although the list of duties for each is geared to these classes. Riley’s goal isn’t to produce a flock of chef wannabes, though. Many of her students watch the Food Network and “reality” cooking shows and begin class excited about becoming celebrity chefs. She tells them what I’ve told several culinary hopefuls: Before spending money on culinary school, get a job in a restaurant — a real restaurant where they’re actually cooking food, not opening stuff in cyrovac bags and nuking it in microwaves. It can be exciting and satisfying, but it’s hard work — and it’s not like the TV shows, reality or not.

The smoothie’s a healthy recipe with fruit, soy milk, honey and topped with flax seeds the students grind themselves. Still, there’s a dollop of luxury in the (real) cream topping hand-whipped by the students — another technique learned. While sipping their drinks, Riley asked everyone’s opinion. Most liked it, but for those who didn’t, comments like “weird” wouldn’t suffice. Students spent the end of class analyzing what was good, what could be improved or changed and coming up with variations. Like that old adage that says if you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day; if you teach them to fish, you’ve fed them for life, these students learned more than a recipe.

Riley is teaching her kids things beyond cooking, however. She wants them to learn, understand and creatively and critically think, not just about recipes, but about all aspects of food: how it affects and is affected by the environment, health, culture, agribusiness and even politics.

Students make everything from scratch, including pie dough and fillings.

“So… probiotics,” she tells that first class. “Those are good bacteria, the kind you want in your gut. They fight off bad bacteria and keep you from getting sick, and can also help with lactose intolerance.” Food for Thought students spend three weeks on a Local Food Project. The goals include:

- To understand the relationship of food, health, community and the environment

- To research the variety of foods grown or produced within a 150-mile radius

- To determine outlets of locally grown foods and better understand the community we live in

- To research the value of a diverse diet and a diverse agriculture

During the project, students independently seek out local food sources. “They’re amazed to find places to buy berries or eggs or vegetables just down the road from them,” Riley says. They’ll take a field trip to the original The Land Connection farm, one of Illinois’ most active organizations devoted to sustainable agriculture. And finally, they’ll write a reflective essay answering such questions as, “As consumers, how do we help protect the environment by seeking out foods that are grown close to home?” and, “How does living in a location surrounded by a diverse agricultural landscape help us maintain a diverse diet?”

Riley’s been getting wider attention for what and how she teaches. Some Chicago schools are looking at her curriculum to find ways they can incorporate it in their FCS classes. And in January, she was honored by Sauveur magazine for her efforts.

“I want to share my passion for American food culture and celebrate small farmer culture with my students,” says Riley. “I think the kids realize it’s very authentic for me.”

Apparently so. There are far more students wanting to take Riley’s classes these days than there are places for them. You go, girl!

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