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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Readin', writin', fricasseein'
Top Madison chefs teach the children well
Troy Miller
Troy Miller

For many of us, the chance to experience a meal prepared by chefs Tory Miller and Eva Ringstrom of L'Etoile Restaurant is saved for special occasions ' anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, and engagements. But for seventh-graders at Sherman Middle School, that special occasion happens every month.

Miller and Ringstrom are the first participants in a new 'chef in the classroom' series introduced this fall in partnership with Madison's farm-to-school program, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch. The series is called Cooking Healthy Options in Wisconsin ' or, yes, C.H.O.W. Miller and Ringstrom come to the school two Mondays a month to engage middle-schoolers in the pleasures of local food and cooking.

'It's second nature for me to tell adults how and why we use local food at L'Etoile,' says Miller. 'It's much harder to tell kids why it's important ' but the challenge is part of the fun.'

Although part of Miller's motivation for getting involved was to curb the fast-food takeover of the lunchroom, he insists that C.H.O.W. isn't about telling kids what they can't eat. 'Kids have options, and I want them to make decisions about food based on knowledge, rather than taking the word of SpongeBob,' Miller says.

The partnership between L'Etoile and Sherman Middle School grew out of Ringstrom's involvement with Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch. The Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program started in 2001 and works to integrate fresh fruits and vegetables from local producers into school meal programs.

Miller and Ringstrom had both been looking to get involved with schoolchildren for some time, and had researched options for teaching kids about healthy food. Their involvement in the chef-in-the-classroom program was really the serendipitous coming together of people and resources.

'L'Etoile isn't accessible to everyone, but we have so much information and a wealth of resources that we can easily share with kids,' says Ringstrom.

The classroom sessions are hands-on ' more like a lab than a cooking demonstration. The kids even have 'lab notebooks' of sorts to keep track of recipes, tastings and homework assignments. For their first lesson, Miller and Ringstrom brought in green beans, canned and fresh, for tasting. The kids tasted the beans and talked about what they tasted, and what they liked and didn't like. Some liked the canned beans best. But everyone agreed that the cooked fresh beans were delicious.

They also tasted Wisconsin-grown Honeycrisp apples. 'It's fun for kids to make the association that these apples aren't available all year and that they are something to look forward to,' says Ringstrom. 'And they really get it ' sometimes I don't think we give kids enough credit for understanding what's good and healthy.'

Miller and Ringstrom are hopeful that C.H.O.W. could become a model for other school districts. They want farmers to think of schools as they do L'Etoile ' as a market for produce ' and for schools to consider using local farms for food. The chefs realize, however, that this may be easier in smaller districts than in the Madison schools, where a centralized kitchen pre-packs meals for 47 schools.

But they remain optimistic. 'I feel really blessed to be involved, and to be able to spend my day off giving back,' says Miller. 'I love that I can make people happy with food and support what I believe in at the same time.'

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