Chefs aim to show kids where their food comes from

Chefs aim to show kids where their food comes from
On the roof of the Maryland Science Center, three chefs prepare food in advance of a competition that raises money for the program, AIWF (American Institute of Wine & Food) Days of Taste, that teachers children about food. The chefs partnered with local farms to create recipes. Here, Executive Chef John Walsh with Chef's Expressions partnered with One Straw Farm and made grits with collard greens, cured ham osso bucco braised in maple syrup, and poached eggs. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

There are plenty of ways to get kids to try new foods.

Hide the broccoli in the brownies. Make muffins out of zucchini. Promise a trip to the toy store for a forkful of salad.

Or you could do what the Days of Taste Program does: Take them to the farm so they can see where their food comes from.

"We want them to enjoy the taste of real food, food without a cartoon character," said Riva Kahn, who oversees the program nationally and in Baltimore for the American Institute of Wine and Food. The goal is to introduce schoolchildren to the sources of their food and encourage them to eat new things.

Chefs and farmers, who will combine their skills next week in a fundraiser for Days of Taste at the Maryland Science Center, and trained volunteers are the backbone of the program, which visits 13 schools in the area in fall and again in spring.

The chefs — and this year they include Donna Crivello of Donna's, John Shields of Gertrude's and Jill Snyder of Woodberry, a "Top Chef" alumna — meet with students one day and talk about the elements of taste — the tongue and how it reacts to sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The flavors are introduced first with powders. Then the chefs offer the children, say, honey for its sweetness, radicchio for its bitterness or aged winter Parmesan for its salty flavor.

The following week, the students travel to an area farm, where the farmers show them that milk doesn't come from the grocery store, and neither do eggs or meat, for that matter. And not everything that grows and is green is grass.

And, finally, the chef meets again with the children, helping them create their own vinaigrette and toss it with the salad greens they have torn up into a large bowl.

The children learn the biology of taste and to differentiate between what tastes good to them and what does not. The children learn that "real food" doesn't come in a bar, or a wrapper or in a deep-fried lump. And what they learn, probably without knowing it, is that when you learn about where food comes from and when you learn to prepare it yourself, you will not be afraid to try it.

It isn't surprising that the kids love the farm and its animals. Or that they like learning to use the whisk with a chef. But it is surprising that almost every schoolchild reports that they like the salad, said Kahn.

"The rewards you get as the chef are not the usual rewards," said Chef John Walsh of Chef's Expressions, who volunteers with the program. "Hugs, kisses and high fives."

Walsh and 19 other professional chefs from the Baltimore region will team up with 15 area farms on Sept. 26 in a charity competition at the Maryland Science Center to raise money for Days of Taste. For the price of a $75 ticket, guests can sample the results of these farm-chef collaborations and sip accompanying wines.

The lineup includes Jesse Sandlin, also a "Top Chef" alumna, Nancy Longo of Pierpoint, Patrick "Opie" Crooks of Roy's, Riccardo Bosio of Sotta Sopra and Winston Blick of Clementine. Each will be given an ingredient from a farm partner around which to build a menu.

This year, Bryan Sullivan of Harbor Magic Hotels will use a tailgating theme to showcase his partner, Piedmont Ridge beef, complete with Ravens and Orioles tents. He won four out of six categories last year for what he created with a simple butternut squash.

"The real challenge is getting individual plates for 350 ready," said Sullivan. The chef-farm challenge hopes to sell that many tickets, up from 250 last year.

The Days of Taste program, adapted from something Julia Child brought to this country from France, costs about $18-$20 per student, though the food and the chefs' services are donated.

Sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food, it was the "wine" in the organization's title that scared the schools — and parents — in the first year.

"In the fall of 1998, Cynthia Glover, Ned Atwater and I [all members of AIWF] jumped on it. But we could only get one school. St. James Academy and its 40 fourth-graders. The public schools backed away," said Kahn

The program now visits 13 schools in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, and there are schools waiting to join the list.

"I was shocked at what they eat at home," said Walsh, who heard child after child report that a typical meal was mac and cheese or nuggets. "It opened my eyes."

The chefs agreed that they don't expect to change every family's diet. "But if you get them at a young age, it will open their eyes and they will remember that they had a salad and they liked it," Walsh said.

"When they make their own vinaigrette," said Sullivan, "when they tear up their own lettuce. They think it is cool and fun and they are willing to try it. That's all we want."

Kahn said it has been interesting to see the changes in the students over the life of the program. Because of the televised cooking shows, the children understand "EVOO" (extra virgin olive oil) and what a whisk is.

"And now they are talking about trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup because these are things they have heard about," Kahn said. "And now we do a lot more with sustainability and what that means, cover crops and carbon footprints."

Not every child becomes a vegetarian as a result of the farm visits — even if the pigs on Dave Smith's Smithfield Farm near Sparks are the hit of every tour. "They are like dogs," Smith said. "They like to be petted. Cows and goats, not so much."

But Kahn gets letters from parents expressing astonishment. "They will write and say their child asked for a salad or tried a blueberry," she said.

"They can't believe it."

If you go

For tickets and information on The Farmer and The Chef go to Tickets are $65 for AIWF members, $75 for non-members. The tasting will occur in the lobby of the Maryland Science Center at 6 p.m. Sept. 26. There is a live auction that includes two dinners catered by chefs.