Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Root Camp After School

How do you get teenagers into a kitchen, cooking? They have increasing academic obligations; and social needs, and yearnings for independence.  These are the years during which the extra-curriculars are dropped - when music and sport teachers find their teenage pupils falling away.

Why would a young adult want to do Root Camp?  Another lesson, another commitment, another adult-led course…?  That is the challenge - to capture their interest and promote cooking into the realm of fun, or even 'a night out'.

Last month we launched our first Supper Club in my kitchen.  My kitchen isn’t small, but it is a domestic one, and only allows for six students - so it's cosy.  Also, I have an Aga - a very particular beast, which you have to know; pots must move strategically between hot plates, warm plates and simmering ovens, in a dance of sorts.  Not ideal for teaching. 
But, to some extent, we like it that way.  It's not a bad thing to manage difficult cookers and awkward spaces: after all, that's what most kids face when they leave home.  Student digs and cheap bedsits, shared houses all mean bad cookers, blunt knives and missing utensils.   We don't go as far as replicating the grungy atmosphere of cheap housing (in fact, we provide multiple chopping boards and knives, gadgets, and smart Root Camp aprons) but it's definitely not the stainless steel, multi-oven environment of the traditional cookery school.
The six students arrive in dribs and drabs, from their various schools - friends and strangers.  They partner up, put their aprons on, and are assigned recipes.  Any initial awkwardness in the room quickly dissipates.  There is a lot to do, a fact which immediately breaks down any shyness barriers.

Throughout the evening, there is friendly jostling for equipment and space, and fast-talking banter crisscrosses the kitchen.  Good collaboration is key: the vegetable stock is made collectively, with those making fish soup simply adding bones to their pot.

Mike's focaccia turns to biscuit - did he add cold water to the yeast?  We snap pieces off the loaf and it tastes good in a rusk-like way.  Mock criticism and good-natured competitiveness plays out between the teams.

Sylvain demonstrates how to chop an onion and the art of filleting a fish - everyone has a go.  The fish-gutting produces responses of disgust and fascination.

Sylvain remains unruffled.

The apple slicing for the tart seems relentless, while the amaretti crust is produced lovingly by Bel and Albi.

Petra makes chocolate sauce…

…while her partner Eli steals it.

Click here for the full menu

In retrospect, the menu was too ambitious.  We didn’t sit down for supper until 9pm, which was officially home-time.  Consequently, home-time actually turned out to be after 11 o’clock.  The lateness of the hour wasn’t school-friendly (or parent-friendly) which I regret.  But it was so seductively convivial around the table that I couldn't bear to break up the party.  And it was a great meal - especially the three soups.  We all had a small portion of each.

Next time we will make faster food.  Everyone in their pairs will prepare the same dish so that we can analyse the differences between them.  That will undoubtedly excite opinion and competitiveness - both good for developing the palate.  And streamlining the menu will leave time for washing up.  As it was, I was left with the mess.

Root Camp After School is about independence and learning to cook on the go, away from the formality and pressure of the school experience.  As Blaze said at the end of the evening: “who wants more school after school?” It is about socialising with friends and peers over chopping boards, steaming pots and a table strewn with tempting dishes.  In this way, Root Camp meets the preoccupations of this unwieldy age group in a positive and constructive way.

This is at the root of Root Camp.

The next supper club will again be in my kitchen with Sylvain in Queens Park (Click here for the next supper club menu) and the one after goes to culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun, a food writer and consultant on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.  Anna’s is a professional kitchen in Highbury, with designated prep space and multiple graters.  And no Aga in sight… (For Anna’s menu, click here)

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