What It's All About

Krista Simmons recounts her own experience with teaching children.

You may find this hard to believe, but working as food editor isn't all about eating and boozing and shmoozing with chefs. The pressure of multiple daily deadlines sometimes has me feeling like I'm chasing scoops on a hamster wheel. Then there's the constant game of whack-a-mole with weight gain and the race to beat rush hour before 6 a.m. news segments. A career in the industry is rewarding, but boy, can it be exhausting. There's no doubt in my mind that at this point in the competition, the Masters were feeling that same sense of fatigue. But this week's elimination delivered just what they needed: a challenge to help them recalibrate and give them a sense of purpose.

top-chef-masters-kr%231127532.jpgEditor's Note: Stay tuned for more of Krista's photos at the end of this blog!

This summer I was presented with a similar opportunity, where I was tasked with running a culinary arts program for at-risk youth impacted by HIV/AIDs through a nonprofit called Hollywood HEART. The profound impact it had on my career was completely unexpected, and every time I get a case of “WTF KBBQ?”, I think about my experience instructing these young aspiring culinary professionals. Our students, many of whom come from low-income households, had never tried an heirloom tomato, let alone been to farmers market to select their own. Others had come from foster homes where their parents had told them they'd never amount to anything, but they shared that they'd found self worth through cooking. One even cried tears of joy because she finally could cook something besides burnt ramen noodles for her sous chef father.

The Hollywood HEART students were so proud of their work at camp, and I can only imagine how thrilled the participants in this episode must have been being able to work with such culinary legends. The Masters taught the blossoming young culinarians how to elevate basic home-cooked meals, and each had valuable lessons to share: Chris talked about minimizing ingredients, keeping things simple, clean, and fresh; Lorena taught them how a hearty, home-cooked meal served family-style could bring together a table of diners; and Kerry showed the students how focus, hustle, and a little tough love can pay off in the end.

Similar lessons came up at Camp Hollywood HEART. Our students learned everything from modernist technique and sushi making to knife skills and quick pickled salads, giving them the tools they need to embark on a culinary career. But the life lessons they took away were just as important as the practical ones.

During one of our guest teaching sessions, Adam Cole, who works at Top Chef alum Michael Voltaggio's restaurant Ink, came up to teach the kids kitchen science, and it was amazing to see the students, some of which have severe learning disabilities, zero in on something so complex as chemistry. If science were taught like that, I have no doubt our public school system wouldn't have such a high drop out rate. When Cole was attempting to spherify grape juice for a modern take on ants on a log, the little orbs kept busting in the sodium alginate. He calmly tweaked his ratios until finally he got it right. “Failure is part of success,” he said. “The important part is that you don't give up, and keep moving towards your goal.”That's an important theme to remember as we move into the finale. I'd hardly call Lorena's lasagne a failure, and from the smile on her face at elimination, it seemed like she didn't either (though Ruth apparently disagreed). Regardless of winners and losers, made a tangible (and delicious!) difference in those kids' lives. “This is what it's all about,” Lorena said. And she's right.  Nurturing a new generation of culinary artists is what this industry should be all about. If you give kids a chance, not only will they grow, but they'll thrive -- and make some really fabulous food in the process.Here are some more photos from my Camp Hollywood HEART experience:






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