In early October, during our Fall Harvest Dinner, the lucky guests enjoyed a variety of delicious and unique dishes, ranging from summer squash Som Tum soup with rooftop shiso to black cocoa cheesecake with nori. All of the participating chefs were New York City-based except one: Chef Andrea Reusing. Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill and executive chef of the Durham Hotel, joined us from North Carolina to serve the guests a delicious first course of smoked Blue Hill mussels with potato, charred onion, and purslane. Chef Andrea is more than the recipient of the James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Southeast” – she also is an advocate for children and wellness in schools. As a founder of Kitchen Patrol, she works tirelessly to improve children’s access to quality food through weekly cooking classes, hosted at the Lantern. Due to parallels between her work and Wellness in the Schools’ mission, we recently sat down with Chef Andrea to learn more about her background, and to get her thoughts on what food – specifically, food access – means to her.
Chef Andrea is based in the South, but she has some roots in New York City – she attended NYU for undergrad, and first entered the food world by working as a cocktail waitress in the NYC restaurant world. According to Andrea, “that got really old really fast,” and she started cooking at a restaurant in the East Village. “I was just hungry all the time, and so I had to learn how to feed myself,” says Andrea. However, she did not think she would stay in the restaurant world. After college, she worked in politics, and it was then that she realized how political of a subject food could be. She found herself again immersed in the food and restaurant world, albeit with a different view.
“Hunger is a huge issue in North Carolina – 1 in 4 children live in food insecurity. We were thinking about ways that we could use the restaurant (Lantern) to open up a real food experience for kids, especially those from low-resource households, and it’s how Kitchen Patrol came about,” says Andrea. Kitchen Patrol was founded upon the realization that many after-school activities, as enriching and valuable as they were, did not include a hands-on cooking component. Every semester, around 12 to 14, 4th and 5th graders join Chef Andrea and her team for a weekly cooking class at the restaurant, where they are taught basic cooking skills in the open-kitchen event space. Says Andrea, “We all cook together around the island, and then we set the table and sit down and eat what we’ve made – it’s just all really sweet.” The activities extend outside of Lantern as well – the participants visit farms, engage with guest chefs, and partake in other events every year. The inaugural class was six years ago. Those participants are now seniors in high school, and many of their siblings have also gone through the Kitchen Patrol program.
The curriculum, developed by her partner Vera Fabian, is both educational and interactive. Every child tries at least four or five different vegetables that they have never tried before. Similar to our WITS CookCamp, the participants learn everything from knife skills to proper mise en place. Says Andrea, “Every kid learns that they can put food on the table, and that they have time to cook. The thing that keeps us going is really, honestly, seeing the kids and seeing their developing relationship with food. The hope is that the child, and their families, can see whole food as something that is for them, and not just for people who write food blogs or go to restaurants. Food is something that they can be in control of, and they can enjoy real food and meet people who grow it and learn to prepare dishes on their own.” Ultimately, the Kitchen Patrol team wants to use their time, space and relationships to provide a program that children may not otherwise have access to.
Chef Andrea is also making waves within the school food sphere. She works with Durham Bowls, an organization that teams up talented chefs and school nutrition professionals from across Durham to develop delicious, healthy recipes for Durham Public Schools. People are able to try various dishes and vote on winners at a public tasting event. The ultimate goal for Durham Bowls is to increase school meal participation, which in turn makes more money available to reinvest in school nutrition and positively impact the future of school food.
As a chef of a fine dining restaurant, Chef Andrea does feel a tension in being part of a culture that sometimes appears to promote food as a sport. Eating in certain restaurants can be seen as another notch on the belt. The ‘foodie’ movement has only gathered steam over the years, yet all of this attention on food and chefs has not served to ultimately expand access to food. Says Andrea, “Food media mystifies chefs, and chefs mystify food. I think that the overall food network gives us a message that you need to have special skills or resources to simply cook a meal for your own family. And I think that message is harmful. I feel like it is our role, as people in the food industry, to help counter that message to demystify cooking, and to support the people who need or are seeking cooking skills.”
Chef Andrea is doing incredible work in North Carolina, and we feel very fortunate to have her as a supporter of Wellness in the Schools. As we grow our work across the nation, we will certainly get the chance to work with Chef Andrea more in the years ahead.