A high school cafeteria isn’t a place that usually comes to mind when thinking of creative culinary pursuits, but for students going to Longfields–Davidson Heights Secondary School (LDHSS) in Barrhaven, it just might be.
Monday night marked the sixth annual “Food for Thought” at the high school, an event that has students in the culinary program match up with some of Ottawa’s top chefs as they cook and serve a six-course meal with drink pairings (non-alcoholic, we’re talking about a high school after all) for 120 guests.
Diners were treated to freshly shucked oysters from The Whalesbone and jazz music before being taken on a trip through time with this year’s theme: “Salute the Decades.” Each chef was assigned a decade from the 1950s onwards and their dish was to represent the zeitgeist of the era. While the creation of the dishes and the recipes was up to the professional chefs, everything else — from the prep to the plating — was in the students’ hands.
The first course, created by Chef Tony Christoforatos, from LDHSS’ culinary arts program, took us back to a time when Jell-O was all the rage. A bowl of duck consommé came with a spoon of five spice Jell-O and cassis “caviar”; servers, all Grade 11 students who had been given a crash course in proper serving etiquette before dinner, instructed us to let the Jell-O melt in our soup. They also directed our attention toward small bowls of orange crumbs: homemade Tang Pop Rocks! We were to let a spoonful fizz in our sodas. The tone was set for a delightfully inventive menu.
Chef Cody Starr from The Rex had students peeling grapes (“I didn’t even know you could peel grapes!” said one student in the kitchen) for his dish “Lunch with Don Draper,” which consisted of Waldorf salad, tomato aspic, and devilled quail eggs.
Chef Marc Doiron from town created the 1970s-inspired dish of pasta primavera with parmesan foam and elegant vegetable garnish. A busy assembly line formed down the hallway to plate the pasta dish and all its elements.
My table mates got a kick out of the crayfish heads that adorned our fourth dish, a chicken and crayfish fricassé, led by Chef Jamie Stunt from Gatineau’s Soif bar à vin.
When it came to the ’90s, Chef Chris Lord from Knifewear told his team of students that the decade was all about “Asian fusion and tall food” — this was evident in delicious beef shortribs, piled atop of an Asian slaw and a scallion pancake.
To ring in the millennium, a malted chocolate milkshake was paired with “Death by Chocolate”, a decadent dessert created by Chef Anna March, sous-chef at Edgar.
Chef Kent Van Dyk, who developed the culinary program when the high school opened seven years ago, envisioned an event like Food for Thought from the beginning as a way to connect his students with industry professionals. Though he laughs that the first event was “a little challenging”, he was happy to find that the reception from the volunteer chefs and diners alike has been wonderful since day one. Describing the capital’s restaurant community as “very, very cool”, Van Dyk is quick to praise the mentorship the chefs provide and as well as his teenage charges. With contagious enthusiasm, Van Dyk explains that for him it’s just so much fun to see the students thrive in the kitchen and see people enjoy their creations.
It was a sold out event on Monday night, with this year’s dinner benefiting both the Parkdale Food Centre, and the Ron Eade Scholarship for Culinary Commitment at Algonquin College. Eade, who passed away suddenly last summer at the age of 61, was a vocal supporter for the culinary program at LDHSS.
Though diners arrive well aware that their food is being prepared predominantly by teenagers, Van Dyk knows that as word gets out about the event guests are coming with increasingly high expectations. For $55, and with contributions from some of the city’s top chefs, a unique and delicious experience seems guaranteed. Who knows? You could be tasting the work of Ottawa’s next generation of culinary talents. Food for thought, indeed.