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Lucky CPS Kids Are Eating (Nutritious) Big Star Tacos for Lunch Today

By Janet Rausa Fuller | October 15, 2015 5:49am | Updated on October 15, 2015 7:28pm
 CPS students will get a special treat on Thursday's lunch menu: chicken tacos al pastor made by award-winning Chicago chefs.
CPS students will get a special treat on Thursday's lunch menu: chicken tacos al pastor made by award-winning Chicago chefs.
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CHICAGO — The tacos al pastor on Thursday's Chicago Public Schools lunch menu aren't much different than what you get at Big Star, that hippest of hip whiskey-and-taco joint in Wicker Park.

That's because Big Star's Paul Kahan and Justin Large, along with fellow chefs Matthias Merges and Jason Hammel, came up with the dish that'll be available to all students at CPS schools.

A bonus for the kids (and adults) at Disney II Magnet, 3815 N. Kedvale Ave.: Kahan, Merges and Hammel will be there Thursday helping make the tacos.

They had to make a few tweaks to stay within federal nutrition guidelines and CPS' $1.20-a-plate budget: chicken instead of pork, more vegetables, very little salt in the sauce.

But Kahan said that chile-infused sauce is the same recipe used at Big Star — except given the volume requirements for Thursday's lunch, they had to commission a Louisville company to make it for them and send it back north.

The taco's path, from the kitchens of acclaimed Chicago chefs to a CPS cafeteria tray, is an organic one.

The taco lunches were today's DNAinfo Neighborhood News on WGN:

Kahan, Merges, Hammel and Large are the founders of the nonprofit Pilot Light, aimed at teaching kids about food and nutrition through hands-on, chef-led lessons that complement a school's curriculum.

They've organized classes with six partner schools: Disney II, where Merges' kids attend; Darwin Elementary in Logan Square; Langford Community Academy in Englewood; Mitchell Elementary in Ukrainian Village; Smyth Elementary in University Village; and Ray Elementary in Hyde Park.

They've signed on more than 25 of their culinary peers to help in the classroom. They include Hoosier Mama Pie's Paula Haney, Phillip Foss of El Ideas, Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Hot Doug's Doug Sohn.

A lesson they presented to students in the spring traced the far-flung origins of the taco al pastor, from Lebanon to Mexico, and its many ingredients — cumin from Iran, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, Mexican masa and guajillo chiles.

"That's the key to the whole program, making these connections. So their brain says, 'I understand this. This is cool.' It's not just, 'Hey, eat this, this is good for you,' " Kahan said.

Pilot Light executive director Alex DeSorbo-Quinn said it was such a hit, the next step was talking with CPS and foodservice provider Aramark about "how to make this taco come to life."

Aramark is providing the tortillas and V&V Supremo, a Pilsen-based maker of Mexican cheeses and cream, is donating queso fresco, DeSorbo-Quinn said.

The lesson materials, which include the recipe and a video shot by a "Sesame Street" producer and starring the chefs and students, are open to all teachers and downloadable for free on the Pilot Light website.


Big Star's taco al pastor is the model for a chicken version to be served Thursday in all Chicago Public Schools. [Big Star]

While the chefs visit schools a few times a year, DeSorbo-Quinn said the discussion now is how to expand the 5-year-old program in a feasible way. There are only so many chefs in the city, and they have restaurants to run.

"We're moving in the direction of teacher-led curriculum, with chefs partnering with teachers to write it," she said.

One lesson she said they're working on for December relates to analyzing themes in literature and plays on the concept of a restaurant's staff meal — the so-called family meal — with students developing ideas for dishes that represent their culture and identity.

Kahan said program expansion could also come in the form of an app with chef videos that correspond to written lessons.

But he said there's no substitute for being in the classroom. He recalled a lesson he did on superfoods where he butchered a whole salmon and made a slaw out of broccoli stems while talking through the curing and preserving process and its role in the days before refrigeration.

"These second-graders, 50 of them lined up, and I'd say 48 of them ate the salmon and broccoli slaw and came back for seconds," Kahan said.

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