What a wonderful and inspiring afternoon I just had, crashing the Gjelina Volunteer Program cooking class at Venice High School. I'm honestly so, so impressed. Chef Travis Lett and Program Director, Angela Hughes, are pals of mine, so I had an inside track to getting to know all about this excellent stuff going on with the kids around our Venice community.
The GVP started a few years ago, with Lett wanting to be more involved in the community that has shared so much with him and his restaurant endeavors. They started out by making pasta with the little kids at Walgrove Elementary, which fascinated the children, Hughes told me. "It blew their minds. The power of food is taken away when it's all packaged and processed. Showing them where their food comes from and how it's made empowers them, because now they get it, and they made something that pleases them." That led to "Jammin' In The Classroom", where they would make jam from scratch, with butter the kids churned up themselves. They next attacked 5th graders with salad, which they deconstructed and showed the kids how to grow and prepare the ingredients. The kids literally devoured it all, both the food and the information. The kids at Westminster Elementary take bakery tours over at Gjusta, and learned to make bread from the wheat that they had grown themselves. Amazing.
The success on both sides was immediate, and Hughes says, changed the kids and the business, with all parties involved realizing the importance of their own health and the health of the community, which can only improve when so much care is taken of each other. As I witnessed yesterday at Venice High.
These teenagers stay after school once a week (for 16 weeks) to partake in the "Chef's Club" class offered by Gjelina's volunteer program, and they learn the whole deal, from planting and harvesting the vegetables and greens outside in the (surprisingly bucolic) Venice Boulevard-adjacent garden, all the way through eating the meal and cleaning it all up.
On this day, they were gathering up snap peas, radishes, gorgeous swiss chard, and salad greens to accompany the whole branzino fish they would be preparing as the entrée up in the classroom. Lett, Hughes, Oscar Lusth, Judy Babis (who comes up with the curriculums), and their employees/volunteers from Gjelina were out there with the kids in the garden, explaining the growth and nuances of the produce (which I also eagerly listened to), and we could have been way out in rural California somewhere, not even noticing the rush hour traffic a stone's throw away.
Public schools have been so shafted by our government over the years, as gone are the Home Ec, Shop, Automotive, Art, Music, and so many other things done away with by short-sighted politicians and budgets. Thank goodness there are those in arts and business in our community that actually do care and will do what they can to give these exceptional youth opportunities they would never otherwise have. Venice High Principal Oryla Wiedoeft has welcomed these groups (also in cahoots with the Boys and Girls Club of Venice) into the school, and embraced what they have to offer, as clearly the students have as well. All I saw were excited, enthusiastic, open faces, eager to learn and create. The atmosphere was abuzz, and I was completely jealous as I watched the kids learn knife techniques, how to blanch the snow peas, filet the whole fish, season the inside ... this was not your basic boil an egg class for high school students ... this is pretty advanced stuff.
As I watched her slicing up a lemon perfectly, a student named Emily told me that her Grandfather had a restaurant when she was growing up and everyone in her family could cook, but now she felt like she had things she could teach them. She added that now she and her Dad cook breakfast for the whole family every Saturday morning ... proving that classes like this not only help the kids, but their families too.
One young man said when asked how he felt about the Chef's Club, "Oh, I love it! Now I do all the cooking at home, my Mom is so happy." I bet she is, especially when you see these guys whipping up dishes like these, that could easily be served right up at Gjelina itself.
"Kids are smarter than we were at that age," said Lett. "They want to be here for three hours after school. Our resources should benefit their public schools and the communities around them. When the school is uplifted, it benefits everyone. We're all in this together." I had never been inside of Venice High before, just outside for games and the Grease sing-along. It's really old inside, and the kitchen area hadn't been used, and was sorely outdated. Not anymore. Gjelina has connections, obviously, and now the kitchen features a gleaming, giant new refrigerator, and spotless, upgraded working spaces. It's great.
And so are the kids. Every single one of the 35/40 kids being taught by a world-class Chef (gearing up to open Gjelina East in NYC's Bowery, where they will also work with farms and schools) for free in a public school (!) was polite, open, and all ears and smiles as Lett, Lutsh and Babis explained the steps in the recipes, all of them listening with tangible respect. "Everyone is so nice here, they treat us like professionals," added one boy as he kindly prepared a plate of their fish dinner for their guest - Lucky Me.
It was truly delectable, and so super inspiring to see these kids so pleased with their results, sharing and discussing it with each other as they ate the feast they had prepared themselves from literally the ground up. When kids today are more interested in their phone screens than dirt, this was truly awesome. The only inkling one would have that these were 2016 teens was when one girl was going around seeing which fish platter was "The most Instagrammable". Who could blame her though, with dishes as impressive as these.
Lett and I both had chills as one student after another repeated that the best thing about the class was "It's fun!"
As learning should be. As LIFE should be, especially when you're a kid figuring out who and what you want to be. With experiences like these under their belts ... truly anything is possible.
Many thanks to everyone involved, from the Gjelina Volunteer Program, to Venice High School, to these incredible, thoughtful, talented, wonderful young Gondoliers/Chefs of Venice. They are absolutely rowing, not drifting into a fantastic future.