The heady aroma of garlic heating up in olive oil, the tangy bright smell of mint and the earthy smell of basil wafted from Kara Gardner’s sixth-grade classroom at Viroqua Middle School Dec. 14 as her students, under the direction of Luke Zahm, cooked a three-course meal.
Zahm, owner of Driftless Café in Viroqua, started the morning-long teaching and cooking session with a question- and answer-period.
One student asked Zahm if he liked all foods.
“No. I don’t like all foods,” Zahm said. “When I was a little younger than you, my mom made me eat steamed broccoli with cheese. I ate it and ate it and I got sick. So I don’t like broccoli.”
Zahm then asked the students if they have foods they don’t like, and everyone raised their hands.
Zahm said when a member of his staff doesn’t like a food, he has them taste it and says, “I want you to think about what you’re tasting.”
“Broccoli has the taste of high summer,” he said. “There are ways to manipulate the foods (you don’t like). Is it bitter? Is it the consistency?”
Gardner asked how Zahm’s mistakes have helped him grow.
Zahm said he remembered watching Bob Ross’ 30-minute painting shows on PBS and hearing Ross say mistakes are “happy little accidents.”
“I approach mistakes the same way in the kitchen,” he said.
He told the students how he left miso too long in the café’s oven and burnt it. (Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and barley or rice malt.) He tasted it and decided to add maple syrup to make a vinaigrette.
“A mistake is an opportunity to reevaluate and go from there,” he said. “It’s a little like life... I’m sure we were the only restaurant in Wisconsin with burnt miso vinaigrette.”
After the questions and answers, Zahm got the students involved in helping to prepare the meal. The first course was Insalata Caprese, meaning “Salad of Capri.” The Italian salad included tomatoes, basil, mint, red onion, fresh sliced mozzarella and balsamic vinegar. The second course was green beans in pesto, which featured basil, Parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil. The third course was pasta with marinara sauce, and included garlic, onion, tomatoes, herbs and cheese.
Small groups of students sat at tables and had the opportunity to do such tasks as snapping the ends off green beans, peeling garlic, and taking mint and basil leaves off their stems.
“As you work with the herbs, think of what they smell like and taste like,” Zahm said. “We want the essential oils in the food.”
Zahm asked Gage Hellerud, who said he wants to be a chef, to slice garlic. As Hellerud sliced garlic at the front of the classroom, Zahm gave the students tips on how to safely use knives.
“A sharp knife is a safe knife; there is less drag on the food,” Zahm said. “Find the flattest surface (of what you’re cutting), lay it down and use the whole knife.”
He also advised students to cut ingredients, such as garlic and onions, the same size, so everything cooks evenly. He told students he keeps onions cold and uses a sharp knife in order to not cry while cutting them.
“When you cut them you are bruising them,” Zahm said. “The cold keeps the onions’ structure rigid.”
The morning-long cooking and teaching session ended with Gardner’s students eating their meal with their fellow sixth-graders, sixth-grade staff and other staff members.
Gardner said students had a positive reaction to the cooking and teaching session.
“The kids loved the experience,” she said. “They were so excited to try the food after their hard work. They were amazed how good the food tasted and the different flavors. They found they enjoyed food they never thought they would eat, nor like. Many commented that it was the best food they ever ate.”
The foods Zahm and the students prepared were based on what students grew in the school garden this spring and summer.
“Luke and I both wanted the kids to have the experience of farm to table — taking what was produced in the garden and then using those ingredients to make a meal,” Gardner said. “Luke brought additional ingredients to incorporate more flavors to the food.”