Just a block away from the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, in a small church basement, the third VoCul cohort is cooking up a storm. Kitchen lab days start early, at 7 am, but before then our VoCul Kitchen Coordinator, Brenna Cook, arrives to make sure everything is ready to go. From the PowerPoint presentation for the day’s lecture to the ingredients and equipment needed for the live graded cooking labs – she makes sure it’s all set before the first students arrive.
Today’s lesson kicked off with a lecture about the intersection of food systems and human health led by VoCul Instructor, Jenny Breen. Jenny talks about food justice, food security, and food sovereignty, and shares with the students the four elements of a food as medicine healthy plate – protein, vegetables, starchy vegetables & whole grains, and fruits. This lesson leads into the cooking lab assignment of the day which is for each student to create a well-balanced plate with a variety of dishes they prepare themselves.
The students move into the kitchen, get situated in their stations, and start cooking. During prep time, students take turns for one-on-one check-ins with Culinary Education Manager, Chef Lachelle Cunningham to talk about their progress, achievements, and to walk through any challenges they are facing. When not doing labs in the kitchen, which only happen twice a week, students are responsible for completing culinary lessons online using Rouxbe, a virtual culinary training platform. They are also responsible for working their way through the ServSafe curriculum ahead of the ServSafe exam which takes place at the end of the 10-week program.
Lachelle supports each student by helping to identify action steps students can take to help reach their goals. “This cohort is very high functioning, inquisitive, passionate, and excited to be in the kitchen” says Lachelle. She also mentioned that today was the first day that the students wore their matching chef coats during the lab. “Having the uniforms changes the vibe a little bit, everyone feels part of a brigade. There is a sense of unity like we’re all on the same page, we are chefs now” she explains. Meanwhile, music is bumping as students are busy working in the kitchen “it’s a joyous vibe” says Lachelle, and it’s really clear to see.
After lab time and check-ins, the long stainless kitchen table is laid out with an amazing spread. Pan-seared tofu, oven-baked salmon, wild rice, roasted and mashed sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and delicious salads including beets, corn, chard, radishes, and even pomegranate. Sauces and garnishes dot the table as well, as students begin to prepare for the graded plating assignment.
Guest chef for the day, and professional food stylist, Betsy Nelson joins Jenny in grading each student’s work. They are considering composition, temperature, and of course flavor. Once the students’ plates are graded, Jenny talks to the group about how it’s important to take pride in your food no matter what culinary setting you find yourself in and that knowing the elements of a balanced plate is a skill that is just as useful to know in culinary food services as it is when cooking at home. Betsy shares her own beautifully composed dish and shares some of the tricks of the trade that chefs use to make their food look great.
Once the grading is done, it’s time to eat! The group sits down in the classroom area and shares a meal together, talking about the new foods they are enjoying as well as sharing their own food memories, deepening their connection not only with each other but with what’s on their plate. Class ends for the day with a look ahead at next week’s lesson which will be all about the National School Lunch Program followed by a cooking lab all about vegetables and salads with guest chef Robin Asbell. Students give their input into what kind of salads and dressings they’d like to prepare and Brenna starts planning her ingredient shopping from there.
Lachelle, the instructors, and Breena work as a team to execute this unique program. Lachelle takes the lead in creating the curriculum, administering the program, and guiding the VoCul participants. The VoCul instructors, Jenny Breen and Jamal Hashi provide hands-on support to the VoCul students in the kitchen and classroom, and Brenna makes sure all of the day-to-day details are taken care of.
While this is only week four of a 10-week program, we are already thinking ahead to the next cohort which we hope to kick off in August of this year. If you’re interested in a culinary education program like no other, click here to be notified when applications open up again. And if you’re a Nutrition Services Director or Chef who is interested in hiring our VoCul grads, click here to fill out our partnership interest form.
VoCul is The Good Acre’s farm to school focused vocational culinary training program. Participants go through 10-weeks of a combination of hands-on and online training, followed by an internship at a partnering professional kitchen. This program aims to increase area schools’ capacity for serving healthy, locally-sourced, scratch-cooked meals by training individuals seeking careers and employment in the K-12 school culinary setting. This 10-week paid training program supports the workforce, school foodservice operations, and our regional farm economy. VoCul is accredited by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation.