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SF students learn cooking and history all in one lesson

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18-year-old Frankie Pena holds a container of Oysters Rockefeller stuffing as he walks out of the refrigeration unit at the John O’Connell High School O’Connell Culinary Arts program, Tuesday, November 24, 2015. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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Former longtime chef and owner of renowned Financial District Italian restaurant Palio d’Asti Daniel Scherotter stood at the front of the kitchen as he handed out advice to the 17 budding cooks preparing a Thanksgiving feast around him.

“I have the butter, so now you said to strain it?” one asked.

“Take out the leaves and pour the butter all over the Brussel sprouts,” Scherotter replied.

Another came up to him: “For the oysters, do you want me to put the meat inside the shell now?”

Without missing a beat, the chef responded: “Did you already put the cheese in the [filling]? Get the Parmesan cheese and get the bread crumbs.”

A third cook held up a dish with sweet potatoes and questioned: “Where do the onions come into play with this?”

Unfazed, Scherotter laughed and said, “It’s your recipe.”

Such was the buzzing activity just hours before high school students at John O’Connell High School on Tuesday served the school’s roughly 70 faculty and staff a feast of the culinary arts and entrepreneurship class’s own take on Thanksgiving.

The menu, a mix of traditional dishes like turkey and mashed potatoes but with a unique kick, serves as a lesson in and of itself, Scherotter explained. Items like Native American corn pudding, tropical basmati rice and Thai butternut squash soup were selected after students researched the faculty’s flavor preferences to teach them about business.

“After studying what Thanksgiving was and how it evolved over time, they did a marketing study of the faculty and looked at what was trending in the culinary world and decided they wanted to do a locally oriented Thanksgiving meal, but with flavors of the Pacific Rim,” Scherotter said.

In the four years since he quit the full-time restaurant business to become a high school teacher, Scherotter has helped to redefine the way students in San Francisco are taught social studies: by aligning cooking with history lessons and entrepreneurship. The class meets five days a week and is co-taught with a social studies teacher. Students spend 25 percent of that time in a restaurant-quality kitchen adjoined to a regular classroom.

“[We] study the changing nature of American immigration groups through looking at their food,” Scherotter explained. “You can study 400 years of American history through changes of European techniques brought here that collided with Native American ingredients and other things, and that’s a great way to study American history.”

The two-year class is for juniors and seniors only, and is among four student labs at John O’Connell High. This year, another San Francisco public high school – Thurgood Marshall – is attempting its own version, but the movement is still raw at most high schools.

“It’s very cutting edge in the university level with food studies departments popping up everywhere,” Scherotter said.

John O’Connell High senior Frankie Pena would never have imagined four years ago that he would end up in Scherotter’s class, a tool that has even helped him secure a coveted engineering internship at the Ritz-Carlton. After years of struggling in school, the 18-year-old was fascinated when a group of general managers from the luxury hotel giant visited his campus and turned him on to the hotel business.

Now Pena, who has shadowed various employees at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco this fall, wants to go into hotel management and is already using the skills he learns in Scherotter’s entrepreneurship class in his professional life, including to help write the resume that landed him his current retail job.

Scherotter also helped Pena reach out to the Ritz-Carlton and schedule an interview for his internship, which goes through December.

“My first three years of high school weren’t that good, but I’m growing,” Pena said as he stirred the mustard greens and Parmesan cheese filling for the class’s version of the classic dish Oysters Rockefeller, baked Marin Miyagi oysters. “[This class] opened up a lot of doors for me.”

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