Chicago Public Schools culinary students representing five schools participated in an event May 2 that many of them say they will never forget.
As the city prepares to host the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit later this month, the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) kicked off its Chicago’s Culinary Crossroads program and placed the students alongside international chefs for a special interactive event.
The panel discussion and cooking demonstration were held at Neil F. Simeon Career Academy, 8147 S. Vincennes, and included students from Dunbar, Harper, Corliss, Southside Occupational Academy and Simeon high schools. The chefs were from the United Kingdom, Toronto, Latvia, Italy and Norway, representing renowned restaurants in their respective countries.
Harper high school senior Tameka Ross got to ask Milan, Italy Chef Eros Picco about how American Italian food compared to Italy’s cuisine. The 18-year-old is headed to the Art Institute of Chicago next fall to study culinary arts.
Other students expressed how inspired they were by some of the chefs’ personal stories of starting out and advancing in the industry.
“You can all live beyond what you come from,” Chef David Colcombe of Birmingham, UK told the students. At first he looked forward to becoming a football player but became a chef when the pigskin career fell through.
Several students said they found other chefs’ stories relatable to their own. Most of the chefs came from modest means. Some got into the culinary industry because of their upbringing and a couple of them explained they got into it on a fluke. But all of the chefs explained that they had to work hard to advance in the industry “from the bottom up.”
Students also received information on the international chefs’ homeland cuisine. From the panel discussion, the students learned from Chef Martins Ritins of Riga, Latvia that dill is used copiously in the Eastern European country’s cuisine. They also learned that fish is king in Norway.
After talking it was time for cooking in the Simeon kitchen.
Chef Lois Martin, culinary instructor at Corliss high school, said the event offered the young culinary students “very important” cultural exposure.
“They’re so accustomed to American food and those kinds of things and being exposed to different cultures and their cuisines, it really gives them (students) an edge,” she said. “It was really good for them; really good experience for them. And it really makes them want to explore even more and that’s what’s really important, ultimately.”
Her students prepared a Norwegian meal that included pork spare ribs, apple cole slaw and potato salad. Chef Tommy Rikhard Raanti of Stavanger, Norway was pleased with what the students prepared and offered them some advice and tweaks.
“I think they did very well, good research on what Norwiegan or Nordic food is. They came up with good results,” Raanti told the Chicago Citizen.
All of the culinary students got feedback on their dishes – and lots of compliments from the chefs. Chef Picco praised Harper students’ meal that included stuffed ravioli with spinach pasta made from scratch.
Overall all, the students were pleased to be a part of the culinary event, even though they were nervous about the dishes they prepared.
“I’m learning new things and it’s not just the same old Chicago food that I’ve had all my life,” said Anshaunti Hillery, who wants to be a pastry chef. The 17-year-old Simeon senior is headed to Washburn culinary school. “It’s a very eye-opening experience because I get to see different foods from different regions.”
Chicago’s Culinary Crossroads is a dine-around program that the IRA created as a tribute to the NATO nations that will converge on the city May 20-21. The international chefs are paired with local chefs during the time they’re here.
“Food is something that’s been within every country since the country’s birth basically. So, it’s important to maintain traditions and also take new traditions in,” said Raanti. “We have so many different cultures in every country now so it’s important to accept new culinary inputs and also use tradition.”
By Rhonda Gillespie