Creating the young chefs of tomorrow, today 

Cornucopia Junior Chef gets budding teen cooks in the kitchen making fresh pasta

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - MEAL MENTOR Jason Dabbagh has created a new program at an Alberta high school that gets young people in the kitchen and prepares them for the food and beverage industry. He's leading the Cornucopia Junior Chef workshop on Nov. 11 at the Aava Hotel.
  • Photo submitted
  • MEAL MENTOR Jason Dabbagh has created a new program at an Alberta high school that gets young people in the kitchen and prepares them for the food and beverage industry. He's leading the Cornucopia Junior Chef workshop on Nov. 11 at the Aava Hotel.

Learning to break down a chicken turned out to be quite the enlightening experience for the high-school students in Jason Dabbagh's cooking class.

"All they're used to getting is a pre-cooked bucket of chicken," Dabbagh said. "It's not until they actually break down the carcass that they notice, for example, that there's the quarter leg and there's the breast, and here's how they're connected."

A teacher at St. Albert, Alta's. Bellerose Composite High School, Dabbagh has made it his life's work to get young people back in touch with their food.

In an age when processed foods make up the bulk of Canadians' diets and families are spending less time in the kitchen, Dabbagh worries about both the global and local consequences that disconnect could have on society.

"We've had generations of families that don't have to know how to cook anymore because they can eat food that's already been prepared for them. The struggle I have is that the kitchen ought to be the heart of the home, because it's often a place where someone who loves us and cares for us has made something that is nourishing our bodies," he said.

"When we know we're getting our food from sources that feel that connection with their environment and feel a sense of moral obligation to the product, whether it be the animals they raise or the ways by which they grow their food, there's a whole web of connectivity we need to appreciate when we go and buy something from the market and consume it. There's more to food than just being something we put in our bodies to fill a void of hunger."

Dabbagh will be in Whistler this week as part of Cornucopia Junior Chef, where teen cooks will get their hands dirty making fresh pasta. The budding chefs will learn how to hand-roll noodles and create one of three sauces of their choice.

"I would love, and this is really my passion, for these kids to be able to make this dish for their families," said Dabbagh. "There's nothing more satisfying to me than a young person coming back and telling me they made this dish for their families and it turned out delicious. They just glow. Their family members are so proud, and it's something they can then teach somebody else."

The key to getting kids in the kitchen, Dabbagh said, is to make nutritional, whole food more accessible, removing the veil of exclusivity that often blankets the high-end restaurant world.

"When I go to a restaurant and I don't know how to pronounce half the items — and I'm fairly cultured and know a lot about the industry — it feels like there's this exclusivity," he added. "My job is to make food inclusive and as accessible to young people as possible. I really have a lot of faith in young people's ability to produce and innovate in this industry."

Another challenge Dabbagh pointed out that home cooks of all ages have to contend with is the barrier that often exists between culinary theory and practice. Competency in the kitchen is about more than simply following a recipe to the letter, Dabbagh said. It's ensuring cooks understand the concepts behind the dishes they make.

"Part of the thing that paralyzes people, when they go to the grocery store is that the easiest thing to do is use a prepackaged item. You don't have to think. But when you walk through the produce section and it's just raw food that you have to do something with and you feel intimidated, that's a big problem. That's an education problem," he said.

"When (young people) can connect theory to practice, then we're creating chefs that can cook without using recipes or Google."

Cornucopia Junior Chef runs from 1 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 11 at the Aava Hotel. The workshop is open to kids age 13 to 18. Tickets are $22, available at www.whistlercornucopia.com.

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