What do a chef and an engineer have in common? Students in the CitySprouts elective at Vassal Lane Upper School could tell you. Over the past two months, the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders have become “culinary engineers” striving to develop the perfect sauce to be paired with the coconut crusted redfish served in Cambridge school cafeterias. Using the engineering design process as a guide, the students identified their problem (develop the perfect sauce), explored possible sauce ingredients, developed recipes, tested their recipes, and sought to make them better. Along the way, they learned about the science of spiciness, how to make an emulsion, and the importance of precision in recipe writing.
One of the highlights of the unit (for myself and the students), was a visit from Chef Andrew Wilkinson, the Seafood Specialist at North Coast Seafoods – the company that provides the locally-sourced redfish for the Cambridge schools. Dressed in his chef’s jacket, he engaged the students in lively conversations about the importance of sourcing food locally and fishing sustainably. Chef Andrew was even able to give the students expert advice on how to make a sauce to accompany the redfish. At the end of his presentation, Chef Andrew opened a small white box to reveal a whole redfish. In what turned into the ultimate show-and-tell, the students got a chance to hold, pat, poke, and observe the fish. Some of our most reserved students were front and center, taking in every opportunity to examine the fish’s gills and open its mouth. Early on in the sauce development project, the students were encouraged to see the connections between the work they were doing in class and the school cafeteria. In seeing and holding the fish, I hope they were getting an even deeper sense of how to their work was connected to the natural world and the local food system.
After the visit from Chef Andrew, the students set to work in small groups developing their signature sauce recipes. They were tasked with creating a precise recipe that could be replicated by anyone. They mixed together different ingredients, searching for the combination that would create the perfect flavor and texture. After each group’s recipes
were developed and perfected, it was time to put them to the first real test. Each group made their sauce recipe, and everyone in the class tasted the sauces with the coconut crusted redfish. Using our sauce development rubric, the students rated each of the sauces based on flavor, texture, compatibility with the redfish, and visual appeal. With the ratings in, the rubrics were tallied and one sauce emerged as the favorite in each class. The classes then went back to work tweaking their winning class recipes to make them even better. By the last week in April, each grade had a sauce that would represent them in the school-wide Sauce Off.
On the day of the Sauce Off, we set up a table in the cafeteria complete with samples and ballots. With the help of Cambridge Food Service Director, Mellissa Honeywood, Chef Andrew, and VLUS/Tobin Kitchen Manager, Chef Paul, my co-teacher Ro and I prepared hundreds of samples of the signature sauces with the redfish. As the middle schoolers trickled into the cafeteria, they stopped by the table to try samples and vote for their favorites. The competing sauces included the Master Unicorn Sauce (6th), the Rosemary Tropical Dash Sauce (7th), and the Alezle Sauce (8th). During each grade’s lunch period, the Sauce Off table was abuzz with students trying samples and voting for their favorite sauces.
Students from our CitySprouts elective were thrilled to see their sauces on the “big stage” and kept bringing their friends and teachers over to vote. In the frenzy of sample-tasting and ballot-casting, it occurred to me that not a single student had complained about eating the fish. In fact, many students came back to
the table asking for more. Throughout the project, a number of people had warned me that pairing the sauce with fish was going to deter the students. I am happy to report that I did not experience that at all. Overall, we received almost 100 ballots, which amounts to almost 300 samples of fish and sauce eaten without a single complaint. While all of the sauces were well-received, the 7th grade Rosemary Tropical Dash Sauce earned the most votes! The Tropical Dash Sauce recipe was sent to Mellissa Honeywood and is listed on the May Cambridge school lunch menu.
On May 16th, the Rosemary Tropical Dash sauce was served with the local and sustainable redfish in cafeterias across Cambridge. The students in our elective were beaming with pride and kept telling all of their friends, “I made that!” Our students weren’t the only ones who loved the sauce. By the end of lunch, the other students were scraping the bottles to get out every last drop. I even overheard one student ask, “can I buy this in stores?”
At the end of it all, I hope the kids are taking away some new interest in science and engineering, a deeper understanding of recipe development, and – most of all – the belief that their opinions matter and have the power to help shape their school food environment.