By John Schaffner
It just may be possible that a future James Beard Award winning chef may be a fourth or fifth grader taking part in the Culinary Club at E. Rivers Elementary School.
Two of those taking part in the club activities this year are the children of teacher Gina Hopkins and her husband Linton Hopkins, who himself has been a finalist in the James Beard competition more than once.
Hopkins is the chef/owner of Restaurant Eugene and Holman & Finch Pub restaurants in Buckhead, as well as the H&F Bread Company. His wife Gina and master gardener Jenna Schuh are the two mothers of E. Rivers students who last year had the vision for the Culinary Club.
The Culinary Club is a leadership club for fourth and fifth graders. They grow their own garden and then cook fresh ingredients from the garden.
So, we are training not only the next generation of chefs, but also the next generation of market shoppers,” explained Gina Hopkins.
At the opening day for the Peachtree Road Farmers’ Market, April 10, they were the featured demonstration chefs, making stone soup and butter. They left a good taste in the mouth of those watching the demonstration.
Young Linton Hopkins said he was not involved because his father is a chef, but because “my mom is involved. I am here because I like it.”
“I really like cooking and I especially like pastry,” said Juliet Eden “I like making cakes and things and I like being outdoors a lot.
Juliana Forio said she joined the club, “because a lot of my family cooks and works in the garden and I think it’s fun.”
“I really love cooking and gardening and want to learn more about it,” explained Lex Trevelino. “I want to learn how to garden better, because my dad has a garden at home. Right now we have red cabbage, Brussels sprouts and, I think, blueberries. I also like to come in here and learn how to use those foods,” he added. ,
Ten-year-old Eliza Schuh said, “Cooking has always been a big thing in my life and my mom became a master gardener. She used to own a restaurant so we helped her do a lot of cooking and gardening. Also, I don’t like the food at school and I want to make it better,” she added as an aside.
So, how did the E. Rivers Elementary Culinary Club get started?
“We were just having a conversation about our love of food and our interest in the school and having children here,” said Hopkins about her conversation with Jenna Schuh a year ago. “One afternoon, we said, ‘Why don’t we do a little culinary garden club with the kids?’ ”
Hopkins said she and Schuh spent several days and nights talking about it last summer, writing down what we wanted to talk about—from why pollinators are important to what heirloom seeds are, “and what could we do with the students that would be fun.
“That is where our sushi class came in,” Hopkins explained. “It exposes them to a culture that they may not have experienced. It is just common interest on our part that we wanted to share with them.” In this first year of the club 15 students are participating—not all at every class, but most attend each week on Tuesday afternoon after school.
There have been 25 classes this first year—13 the first semester and 12 the second semester. Participation is not free. Parents pay $200 per student for the experience, which, according to Schuh, covers the expenses for the classes. In addition, chef jackets the students wear are purchased by the parents.
One recent class was all about gardening, with a tasting of various cheeses to satisfy the ferocious appetites of the students after a day in school. Hopkins said she and Schuh bring something that they can eat right away and then the children prepare something to eat at the end of the two-and-a-half hours meeting.
For their snack, the young chefs got the opportunity to try four artisanal cheeses made in Georgia or Alabama. There was a Thomasville Tome, a Sweet Grass Dairy Camembert , a blue cheese from Thomasville and a soft goat cheese from Huntsville, Ala. The cheeses were served with bread.
Schuh explained the concept of pairing—serving one food with something else. In this case, the cheese was paired with bread—not wine, the way the French might prefer it. She explained that the cheese could be paired with nuts or fruits or bread, taking a bite of one and then the other.
After the lesson on cheeses the club members settled in for some serious organic planting of vegetables and herbs in the extensive garden area, located in a courtyard between two classroom wings of the 1950s-style school. When they cook, it is done in the school cafeteria.
On that day, they were putting in the ground things they hoped to be able to harvest for the big graduation dinner the young chefs will prepare for their parents after classes end in May.
Schuh told the students, “Your parents spend the money, but you spend all the time and we want to show them how much you have learned.”
The students don’t get a graduation certificate from the Culinary Club. What they will get is a cookbook of the recipes they have made that will fit into metal lunch boxes.
These are recipes the E. Rivers Elementary School’s Culinary Club prepared this year:
Chocolate flourless cake (gourmet cookbook)
Zuccini Strip salad
Sweet Potato bread
Puff pastry Savory and Sweet Tarts
Green Glorious Greens (kale in Tomato Sauce, Kale Chips and collards)
Incredible Edible Egg (egg Salad, Mini frittatas)