NORTH LAWNDALE — With the help of a certified chef, 11 teens from North Lawndale learned how to prepare a three-course meal Thursday evening.
Chef Jennifer Gavin, who was the third runner up on Fox’s Season 4 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” worked closely with teens a part of the My Block My Hood My City group. The group was founded by Chatham resident Jahmal Cole with the mission of taking teens from the south and west sides of Chicago to other parts of the city.
The young cooking participants were juniors and seniors at Collins Academy High School, 1313 S. Sacramento Dr. They met her in a commercial kitchen in the South Shore community.
Before preparing the meal, the students first learned about and tasted exotic fruits including rambutan, star fruit, dragon fruit, pomegranate and more. Gavin asked them questions like “What do you think of the texture? and “What does this one look like?” while the fresh fruit was passed around the table. After some hesitation from the group, they curiously sampled the different fruits, not afraid to shout out if they didn’t like it.
The teens taste different exotic fruits like rambutan.
Once the tasting portion was over, Gavin had them split into three groups and select a captain. One group worked on the dessert — a fruit taco consisting of a sugar cookie taco shell, fresh whipped cream and berries.
Another group chopped vegetables and seasoned meat for the lemon herb grilled chicken breast with mushroom leek cream sauce, mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
The last group prepared Vietnamese Lettuce Wraps with sweet chili spring roll sauce.
Dejanae Key, 16, wants to be a chef, so for her the experience was a lot of fun and valuable.
Dejanae Key works with Chef Jennifer Gavin.
“She’s a good teacher and if you listen you will get it,” Dejanae said of Gavin.
The teen has already learned how to cook traditional Soul food dishes at home, but she said Thursday’s class taught her something new.
“I’m here to learn about foods outside of my culture,” Dejanae said.
Her classmate Concresha Hampton said her expectations were exceeded.
“It’s fun and it’s my first time cooking a big meal,” she said.
Concresha Hampton chops vegetables.
Concresha was paired up with Bobby Murdock to chop onions and season the chicken.
Bobby said he sometimes helps cook at home and is considering pursuing it as a career. He said among the basic cooking skills Gavin taught them he appreciated the instruction on how to properly use a knife for food preparation.
“I was excited when I knew we would be working with Chef Jen because she seems nice and like a cool person,” he said.
The students traveled with their teacher Emily Gottlieb, an after-school coordinator. Gottlieb said the trip not only gave the teens basic cooking skills, but also helped them sharpen their listening skills and connect with peers they wouldn’t normally bond with.
“I think it’s so cool to get them out of the normal routine and for them to hear her story and get exposed to all the different worlds that exist,” Gottlieb said.
After “Hell’s Kitchen” Gavin traveled the world for work, cooking as a private chef for celebrities like Lady Gaga, Usher, Paul McCartney and R. Kelly. She later decided to return home and that’s when she opened her catering company Edible Passport.
She got into culinary arts at 16 as an apprentice ice, fruit and vegetable carver at Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, a program designed for Chicago young people by the late Maggie Daley, the wife of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. After completing the program, Gavin enrolled at Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. During that time, she was able to study abroad in Dinant, Belgium and Paris, France for her culinary internship.
Gavin told the students she grew up on the South Side and had never traveled the world before college.
“It’s like looking in a mirror when I look at them,” she said. “It’s important that I teach them that there is so much more outside of Chicago whether it’s the south or west sides.”
She said she wants the students to be more open to trying new things outside of their comfort zone, a notion seconded by Cole.
“The chef has traveled the world and has worked with a lot of different celebrities,” Cole said. “She’s able to introduce these teens to different fruits I know they’ve never tried anywhere. They can’t get those at a corner store.”
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