BY LISA MARIE DAHM | SPECIAL TO NHN
About 40 Waimea Middle Public Conversion Charter School students had a rare opportunity to learn from some of the country’s top chefs last week during a demonstration at the Malaai Culinary Garden.
Surrounded by students with plastic cutting boards and kitchen knifes, celebrity chefs Jonathan Waxman, owner of Barbuto in New York City, and Michael Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger in Boston and host of “Simply Ming” on public television, taught students how to properly hold and use a knife for food preparation.
Tsai and Tyler Florence, owner of Rotisserie & Wine in Napa and a Food Network star, helped the students make an “open-faced omelet” in the school garden’s outdoor cooking and preparation area, while cocktail mixologist Manny Hinojosa showed them how to create a healthy, nutritious fruit drink.
The chefs were in Hawaii for the second annual Celebrity Chef Tour at the Mauna Lani Hotel and Bungalows last weekend, a benefit for the James Beard Foundation. The school garden was the first stop on a daylong tour of West Hawaii farms where the chefs selected ingredients for a cocktail reception and a six-course meal at the hotel’s restaurant, the CanoeHouse.
Eighth-grader Kiera Foster, 14, had an opportunity to cut kabocha under Waxman’s tutelage. Foster said the chef showed her how to use the knife, with his hands guiding hers.
“I finally got to meet a really awesome chef,” Foster said. “It was amazing to be able to be shown something that master chefs use on television.”
The chefs poured into the three-quarters-of-an-acre garden at about 8:30 a.m. and tasted and studied the different herbs and vegetables in the garden while students answered questions and walked the chefs through, at the same time harvesting supplies for the demonstration.
Florence called the school’s culinary garden a “great opportunity” for students.
“This is a great pilot program and a cornerstone for education (in nutrition),” Florence said. “To be able to understand where food comes from is important. It gives a child an experience of growing it and how it starts out. It is a great example of what a school can do.”
The culinary garden was built in 2005 under the guidance of program director Amanda Rieux to teach students all phases of food production, from soil preparation, planting, cultivating and harvesting to cooking and serving a meal.
Crops include sweet potatoes, kabocha, yacon, tomatoes, three different types of sugar cane, and herbs, including basil, mint, thyme and parsley, as well as green onions, scallions and chili peppers. Students also planted flowers that are used for eating and decoration.
Susan Tuason, garden assistant teacher, chef and wife of Mauna Lani executive chef Sandy Tuason, said the chefs were originally scheduled to visit the school for 45 minutes, but decided to stay for more than two hours and worked with four classes of students.
“These chefs are all at the top of their fields and they love what they do and they love sharing what they do,” Tuason said.
The school donated vegetables, herbs and sugarcane and other items from the garden to make some of the dishes served during the Celebrity Chef Tour two-day event.
Students had also spent the week gathering eggs from the 12 chickens on their property to use in omelet, and Hinojosa used limes and herbs from the garden, as well as strawberries and other fruits donated by local farmers for the visit, to make the drink with the students.
“I taught them how to use all the stuff that Mother Nature gives us to make a nice, healthy drink instead of buying soda,” Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa said he teaches his own children how to cook and prepare beverages, so he is aware of safety cues to pass on to students.
Laan Hansen, an eighth-grader, said he found the experience of being with the chefs “shocking.”
“It is my first time seeing famous people,” Hansen said.
Hansen said he liked how the chefs spent time with the students “communicating and talking to each other.”
“I learned how to make this,” he said, holding up his drink. “It’s very good. It’s strong and sweet together.”
Tyson Greenwood, chef de cuisine to Florence, called the Malaai Culinary Garden “fantastic.”
“I would love to see a garden in every school,” Greenwood said. “It makes so much sense. People would eat differently if they knew something of the growth cycle. It is fantastic that (these students) have the opportunity.”
Seventh-grader, Noma Tibnol, 13, said she enjoyed her time with the chefs.
“I learned that they are good at cooking,” Tibnol said. “I learned how to cook with them and I am learning new things.”
Belinta Abraham, 14, said she enjoyed Tsai’s humor and the hands-on help during the cooking demonstration.
“I am happy that they came to spend time with us,” she said.
Jonathan Taylor, Blue Ginger executive chef, said the garden offers students a place of stability and responsibility that gets them involved at an early age.
“It is good to see the smiles on the kids’ faces,” Taylor said. “It is priceless.”
Tuason agreed, calling the visit a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“I knew it would be a great event and I knew everybody on both sides would have a wonderful time,” she said. “But seeing the event unfold and seeing their faces and their enthusiasm and interactions was just fabulous.”