A Burlington program puts kids in the kitchen
Vermont rabbit glazed with orange and cranberry, accompanied by pancetta-flavored polenta and wilted Swiss chard dotted with plump golden raisins. It sounds like an entrée at an upscale bistro. But this dinner wasn't prepared by a trained chef. It's what Tor Dworshak, 13, recently cooked up for his sisters, Charlotte and Sylvie, and his parents, Alan Dworshak and local artist Katharine Montstream.
Tor Dworshak is not your average teenage boy. He watches the Food Network voraciously and pores over cookbooks. At school, he's been known to sneak a copy of Cook's Illustrated in front of his sheet music during band class. While a peer might blow his birthday money on video games or sporting equipment, the Burlington eighth-grader picked up a $60 Wusthof paring knife to add to his cutlery collection.
Dworshak's foodie obsession has been fueled by Frank Pace, who has worked as executive chef at Smokejacks restaurant in Burlington. Since October, Dworshak has apprenticed in the kitchen there.
Pace, 33, began working with area youth last school year after hooking up with the Burlington School Food Project and the collaborative project VT FEED  - Food Education Every Day. He began by visiting Burlington schools as a guest chef. Then he realized there was another way to work with youngsters: Bring them into the kitchen and teach them to cook. His first protégé, Hunt Middle School's Dylan O'Neil, got a paying gig at Smokejacks after his internship ended.
The Burlington school system - like those of Berkeley, California, and Ithaca, New York - has put lots of work into improving cafeteria food. The Burlington School Food Project,  helmed by Food Service Director Doug Davis, has been collaborating with partner farms and food-advocacy organizations to bring local produce to the schools since 2003. In 2006, according to the program's website, the district used 650 pounds of zucchini and 50 cases of kale, most of it from Burlington's Intervale. Last week, according to Davis, pesto pizza was on the lunch menu. The pesto was made last summer from Burlington basil, and frozen.
Three and a half years ago, Davis began working with Abbie Nelson of VT FEED - a consortium of local food-related nonprofits - to bring guest chefs to the city's two middle schools; 12- to 14-year-olds were targeted because at that age, Nelson explains, "Kids have lots of food choices and are starting to make their own decisions."
Not many chefs stepped up to the plate. "There are people who are willing to help," says Davis, "but we haven't been able to connect."
"Frank leapt at the chance," adds Nelson, who first met Pace at a Vermont Fresh Network event.
In his role as guest chef, Pace dropped by each middle school once a month and helped prepare dishes full of local ingredients for the students to taste-test. The "kid- approved" selections augment the standard chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers on the lunch menu.
The students' top picks? "At most middle schools, the simpler the better," says Pace. "It has to be like mac and cheese . . . minestrone made from the Intervale. Nothing new and exciting. Nothing gross-looking." Students at Edmunds, which is more ethnically diverse than Hunt, are a lot more willing to experiment, Pace has observed.
He struggles with the knowledge that teaching kids about good food doesn't mean they'll find it at home. "Many don't have the money to eat locally," he acknowledges. Davis agrees. "For some kids," he says, "the school lunch is the only real meal they get."
And bringing big changes to Burlington's school cafeterias isn't easy. "We're trying to change food culture, which takes a lot of time and lots of partners," says Davis.
Because of these challenges, Pace began looking for new ways to help increase an appreciation for food among local youngsters. Working at Smokejacks provided plenty of opportunities. The teenage dishwashers there, Mohammed Hussin and Alier Gai, are refugees from Somalia and Sudan, respectively. "We're training them to be chefs," Pace says. Gai is on his way - soon he'll be moving into the kitchen and making salads. Pace has other ideas as well. He points out that culinary programs exist at both the Burlington and Essex tech centers. "Why aren't we working with them?" he wonders.
Pace knows he's part of a lucky minority: His parents could afford the tuition at the San Francisco Culinary Academy, which he attended after finishing his business degree at UVM. Culinary school doesn't come cheap - a single year at the New England Culinary Institute program costs upwards of $30,000. "It's mostly available to the higher echelons of class," Pace gripes. "What are we doing about other people?"
He's grateful for televised cooking shows, which have exposed kids from all social strata to a variety of cuisines and cooking techniques. "It's easier for someone on welfare to afford cable than culinary school," he points out.
Pace hopes his work with local youth will help change attitudes about eating. "We have to start kids on whole foods. By the time they turn 15, they're so addicted to sugar, it's the hardest thing to break. That's what we're up against - a serious addiction to fast food," he says. "I want to teach them the true beauty of food. At Smokejacks, we say we work in heaven because we have access to such good ingredients. The kids we have in the kitchen taste everything: herbs, greens, fruits."
Dworshak, who helps with prep work at Smokejacks  on Monday afternoons, has mastered empanadas, spring rolls, paella and artichoke soup. He's currently focused on desserts - though the propane torch used to put the finish on crèmes brulées is still off-limits. In addition to his kitchen time at the restaurant, Dworshak researches famous chefs on the Internet and keeps a journal of everything he cooks.
What first inspired his culinary curiosity? "He didn't get it from me," says Montstream, who jokes about the time she burned a pot of pasta. "How do you burn pasta?"
The question is rhetorical, but her son answers anyway. "You didn't put in enough water."