At 9:30 on a Saturday morning, most teenagers are still asleep. For that matter, so are most chefs, especially those who worked a grueling Friday night shift.
But today, these unlikely early birds are gathered in the 3,600-square-foot commercial kitchen of the St. Paul College culinary arts program, standing at long stainless steel tables heaped with colorful vegetables, grains, legumes and herbs.
It’s the annual recipe development day for Roots for the Home Team, a nonprofit salad enterprise that partners with area youth gardens. The young gardeners will sell the salads they create at weekend Minnesota Twins home games, including this weekend.
Most of the produce used in Roots for the Home Team’s salads comes from four youth-centered urban agricultural programs: Appetite for Change, Dream of Wild Health, Urban Roots and Urban Ventures. Their young gardeners have been brainstorming for weeks which flavors, global cuisines and ingredients they’d like to use for this season’s offerings.
Joining them are Sean Sherman of the Sioux Chef, Thomas Boemer of Revival and Corner Table, and Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson of Chef Shack. Yia Vang of Union Kitchen, which runs Hmong-cuisine pop-ups around town, and LaChelle Cunningham of Breaking Bread Cafe are also there to help with recipe development.
So are food service chefs Matt Quist from Taher, Mark Augustine from Minneapolis Public Schools and Paul Johnson from the Premium Suites at Target Field, with Nathan Sartain, culinary arts instructor at St. Paul College, overseeing all the commotion.
The session is kicked off by Susan Moores, who founded the organization. She started it as a way to help young people who work in community gardens to participate in a complete food journey, one that includes not only planting and harvesting vegetables, but also creating recipes for salads using the ingredients they grow, then selling them at sporting events.
It’s a farm-to-ballpark connection that Moores hopes will inspire these young people to connect with a wider world of possibilities while building valuable business and entrepreneurial skills.
“We’re the nation’s only youth entrepreneurial salad business selling at major sports venues,” she says. Last year, these teens grew almost 500 pounds of organic vegetables and sold nearly 1,600 salads.
Moores reminds the group that they have only two hours to develop their salad recipe, create exact instructions (“With measurements!” she warns) and plate up their final creation for a presentation to the larger group.
Chef Sherman talks with American Indian kids from Dream of Wild Health about the concept of indigenous food systems, discussing possible salad ingredients including fresh berries, wild rice, hominy and walnuts.
“We need to look backward to figure this out,” he tells them. “We need to understand history that isn’t written up in schoolbooks.”
He discusses the importance of corn, beans and squash. “These are called the ‘three sisters’ in our culture, so we might want to focus on them. We can play with foods that are our foods and make them look pretty, make them look cool.”
Tony Lee, 18, says the group experience is part of the fun. “I like being on a team. We get to find out what ingredients go together while we’re working together.”
Imogene Silver, 17, chimes in: “The dressing is the hardest part to nail. It can make or break a salad. That’s where the chefs really help. Sometimes they taste something and say, ‘This is what we need to add,’ and everything is saved.”
Last year, her group developed an Indian-themed salad they named the Curry Puckett. “We’re still thinking of a name for this year,” she says. “We can’t force it.”
Chef Boemer surveys the ingredients at his group’s table. “You need to think about how you want to bring your salad together,” he says. “I grew up in the Carolina Lowcountry, so perhaps you’d like to consider incorporating some of those flavors in your salad.” He picks up a bunch of collard greens.
“When I was growing up, we always cooked these, but they’re really good raw, or maybe we could roast them and make chips out of them as a garnish.”
Meanwhile, the room is gaining in volume and motion, as each group discusses, debates and prepares. Incredible aromas rise from each station as vegetables and nuts are toasted and roasted, and grains boiled.
Fragrant cilantro, mint, basil, garlic and ginger are chopped. Sesame oil and apple cider vinegar are whisked into dressings. Cucumbers are nibbled, mint leaves tasted, and a few adventurous kids dig spoons into fresh lemons or limes for a hit of pure citrus flavor. Everywhere, plastic tasting spoons are put to use.
The volume of the room rises as team members offer opinions and ask questions: “More cumin!” “More pepper!” “Too much vinegar?”
Chefs offer encouragement and advice: “Watch your fingers.” “Start with a little bit; you can always add more.”
Krystal Aviles, 17, gingerly picks up a leaf of roasted bok choy as it’s pulled from the oven and holds it up, nibbling from the bottom.
“It’s like veggie French fries!” she says, encouraging her group to taste for themselves. They crowd around the pan and munch away as chef Vang talks with them about their plan for a salad version of pad thai.
“Every dish has a narrative, and when you follow it, you find the people,” he says. “You are the people who grow this food, and I want to help you be part of the story.”
The young gardeners are excited to share some news with Vang. Thanks to international smuggling from a shadowy figure referred to only as “someone’s grandma,” seeds from Korean peppers have made their way to the Urban Roots team, which plans to grow them this year.
To their knowledge, they will be the area’s only freshly grown source of what they jokingly call “secret peppers.”
“I love those Korean peppers,” says Vang. “They have more sweetness to them.”
Chef Quist refers to each of his young team members as “chef,” as in, “Chef, let me get a picture of you putting that corn in the oven to roast,” which he says as he snaps a photo of one of his beaming team members.
Demonstrating how to evenly dice peppers to Victory George, 15, he pulls one perfect cube from the pile, places it at the top of the cutting board and says, “My teacher in culinary school would always tell us, ‘That’s your sexy one,’ so use this one as your role model for dicing.”
George grins and gets to work. Quist checks in on his progress a few minutes later and offers praise: “These are unbelievable!” George’s smile grows bigger.
Presentations follow and the salads are sampled. Moores’ project is on track.
“I want us to plant seeds that help these kids believe in themselves and realize there really are significant opportunities available to them, not only in the agriculture or culinary worlds, but in anything they want to try,” she said.
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers food, health and science. Follow her @KendrickWorks.