A soulful tune rose from the iPhone on the kitchen counter, and Tajah Tempest murmured the lyrics as she sank her hands into a rich mixture of ground turkey, garlic scapes and sunchokes.
Across the room, Michael Vang and Alfredo Alvarado tackled giant heads of Napa cabbage, chopping cautiously.
In the corner, Charmaine Douglas mixed basil pesto in a whirring food processor as Sean Sherman slowly added sunflower oil, then maple syrup.
Every Tuesday in summer, a local chef visits the interns at Urban Roots, a St. Paul nonprofit that hires high schoolers to garden, cook and learn about food. On this particular Tuesday, four interns spent the day with Sherman, the James Beard Award-winning Sioux Chef.
Armed with a vegetable haul from the Urban Roots garden and a bag of groceries that Sherman brought, their task was to cook lunch for 80 people. To do that, they had to use every bit of everything they had. Vegetable stems were mixed into pesto, dandelions were tossed into a salad and strawberry leaves were blended into berry dressing.
“I’m trying to show them that we can use all the parts of everything,” Sherman said.
Located in a squat brick building near Swede Hollow Park, Urban Roots has provided paid internships to young people on St. Paul’s East Side for more than two decades. Each year, 60 interns participate in one of three programs, which focus on gardening, conservation and cooking. The goal is to teach young people technical and entrepreneurial skills that they can use after high school, while also encouraging healthy eating and environmentalism.
The 12 interns participating in the “Cook Fresh” program are learning how to take the ingredients from the Urban Roots garden and turn them into meals. During the summertime “chef-led lunches,” they start working at 8 a.m. to cook and serve a meal to the other interns at noon. It’s the one day each week when everyone eats together, said program coordinator Saba Andualem.
Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up in Pine Ridge, S.D., and started working in kitchens at age 13. He learned to cook out of necessity, he said — his family was poor, and he needed to work.
After college, Sherman moved to the Twin Cities and in 2014 he launched the Sioux Chef, a catering business dedicated to native foods. Like the staffers at Urban Roots, his focus is providing education and access to fresh, healthy, local food.
“We’re making foods taste like where we are, basically,” he said.
Thinking about food
On Tuesday morning, Sherman moved quickly from dish to dish, offering tutorials as he went. He stopped to work a knife into a head of cabbage, starting with cuts at the base to loosen the leaves before crossing the kitchen to check on another intern. Michael, 15, and Alfredo, 17, chopped and then paused when they came to the second cabbage sitting before them.
“This is huge,” Michael said, hesitating a moment before lopping off the base.
As they worked, Alfredo reflected on how working at Urban Roots has changed his relationship with food.
“It got me thinking more about cooking different things and trying different things,” he said. “I wasn’t open to eating vegetables — now I eat vegetables.”
About 30 percent of Minnesotans have limited access to healthy food, based on how far they live from a full-service grocery store, according to a 2016 report from Wilder Research.
At Urban Roots, fresh vegetables are just steps away, in a neat garden edged by bright flowers and a chain-link fence. During a brief break from cooking, the interns and two staffers took Sherman outside for a tour, showing off the long rows of leafy green vegetables. After pausing to take a group photo, Sherman turned to the interns.
“You guys ready to move fast?” he said. “Let’s go rock this next part out.”
Inside, everyone was dispatched to different tasks. There was a lot of work to do, but they just kept moving.
The turkey meatballs had to go in the oven. The berry dressing had to be tasted. The food processor had to be washed again and again.
All the while, Tajah, 17, took meticulous notes on a yellow legal pad. The recipes would become part of a cookbook, which the Cook Fresh interns would use to teach their fellow interns how to cook, she said.
Rush to the table
Around 11:30 a.m., after more than three hours of work, the group started moving food into the dining hall, where 12 round tables were set up and a whiteboard read, “Welcome Sean Sherman of Sioux Chef.”
They arranged long folding tables and set down 80 paper plates. As Sherman began to show the interns how to arrange the food — “We’re just going to make pretty little plates, that’s it,” he said — Tajah pulled up a chair and sat down for a moment, her hot pink Nikes tapping the floor.
Was she excited?
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m hungry.”
Everyone was quiet as noon drew closer. The four interns worked methodically, making sure each plate got a cabbage leaf, a handful of salad, a wild rice cake topped with pesto and a meatball. Sherman snapped photos with his iPhone.
Other interns filed in, slowly filling the tables. Two boys took turns playing a piano in the corner.
As she surveyed the food, Charmaine, 15, couldn’t stop smiling.
“Wow, guys,” she said. “Pretty cool.”
Minutes before noon, after some last-minute chopping and a brief moment of panic when it seemed there wouldn’t be enough rice cakes to go around, the group took a breath and counted up the plates.
“We did enough,” Tajah said.
Sherman agreed. “We did enough.”