As I am one of the three Residents of The Outdoor Academy, sometimes it appears that I am a part-time, possibly full time, chef. Each of the Residents take turns running this industrial kitchen when our amazing Chef, Rick, is not here on the weekends. In addition, I have taken on the role of Food Coordinator. Responsibilities of the Food Coordinator include planning menus for the expeditions, planning food for weekends, and communicating with Rick about said menus. I might add that during the conversation in which I took this job, Glenn mentioned how noteworthy the food is here at OA. He was not wrong. Chef Rick creates something all of us can enjoy and brings different themes to the kitchen with ease. It’s best not to compare yourself to Rick, because he is one of the best.
The kitchen can be a humbling place, especially when cooking for 25 students plus 3 residents. There are tricks I have learned since my first day in the kitchen, but tonight, I realized something. All my best and most successful experiences as a chef and food coordinator involved the students. Let me set the scene from tonight. Well, it actually started this morning when three of our students walked into the Sunlodge exclaiming, “L’shanah Tovah!”, which means “Happy New Year!” in Hebrew. It was Rosh Hashanah. These students, who all come from Jewish families, decided to bring some of their culture to our day. They cut up apples and poured honey into little bowls, which will start your new year off crisp and sweet! For lunch, Kate and I sat in the kitchen peeling the skins off of Chickpeas to make the perfect, smoothest Hummus (not exactly on theme, but it was a recipe from her family). Now cut to the afternoon. We are all making our way back to campus from a fun day out in Brevard when those three students started talking about the food they traditionally eat during Rosh Hashanah. This expanded into all traditional Jewish foods. The next thing I knew, I was gathering up ingredients for Matzo Ball Soup and Latkes! We derailed from the original dinner plan of quesadillas and prepared a feast of traditional Jewish foods (not all pertaining to Rosh Hashanah, they would have me add).
I was no longer head chef, I was sous chef to the experts–the students. We grabbed a few more helpers and got to work peeling potatoes, grating potatoes, grating onions, grating carrots, forming matzo balls, chopping apples, and filling bowls with applesauce (for the latkes). It was a beautiful thing. I was just a passenger on this cultural culinary expedition. We had so much fun, and it took all the stress out of cooking for a crowd. I felt as if I dropped into one of their family kitchens and was being ordered around by a grandparent who’d been cooking this food for decades. The students were telling stories from their childhood and matching up similarities between their traditions. We didn’t skip any of the important steps in the cooking process, which meant we cooked the food with care, and it tasted SO good.
Is this what I had been missing? Is this the secret to a successful OA kitchen? That we, the residents, shouldn’t really be the ones cooking all the time? We have some magnificent creativity this semester. It comes in all forms and mediums, not just culinary. Two weeks ago, we organized our first Cafe OA. Cafe OA traditionally takes place on weekends, and the students turn the dining hall into a full on restaurant for brunch. Well, that is what Semester 49 did. We dropped them the idea–plan brunch, cook brunch, create a restaurant, be creative, go! They took it and ran with it. They made beautiful name cards for each person; they booked musical talent (from the student body); they created the menu; they took orders at the tables; and, most importantly, they cooked all the food! It makes me laugh to think about them walking into the den, where all the students were waiting to be seated. The students running the “Cafe” walked in saying, “Party of 10!”
Each time we give them the bones of an idea, the students fill in the lines with their style and creativity. Of course, sometimes it is a messy process. Tonight we were frying up Latkes until the last minute…and maybe it took us a bit longer than intended. And of course it was a bit chaotic during Cafe OA when orders were coming in faster than they anticipated. But each of these experiences taught them something important or allowed them to express their individuality.
I think I will continue this love-hate relationship with the kitchen, or just chalk it up to a mutual respect. It has taught me valuable lessons, and tonight it affirmed the idea that all we have to do is seek input from the students to create something amazing.
By Ellie Quinn