I fly through the gate of Kilkenny Primary School just as the siren blows, sending children scurrying across the grounds to their classrooms. This morning I am on my way to observe a cooking class in the school’s kitchen, but pause for a moment to marvel at the vegetable garden. At this time of the year it’s brimming with fat cabbages, silver beet, shiny eggplants and broad beans.
In Adelaide’s western suburbs, Kilkenny Primary was one of the first South Australian schools to roll out The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program. A highly regarded Australian cook, restaurateur and food writer, Stephanie launched the program in 2001 with an aim to ‘Educate the next generation of Australian children to enjoy the pleasures of fresh, seasonal food and to develop the skills that lead to lifelong health.’ The program is currently operating in 380 schools around the country.
The 90-minute class is taken by Kitchen Specialist Mel Gush, a qualified chef who witnesses first-hand the real-life impact of this wonderful program; not just the positive changes it brings to the health and behavior of her students, but the flow-on benefit to their families and the wider community. ‘I’ve watched these kid’s palates change…And more kids are now cooking the recipes at home,’ she says. Students attend the kitchen garden lessons from year 4 to year 7 and are exposed to various cuisines from Vietnamese to Italian.
The year 5 class sits transfixed on their seats while Mel runs through today’s Japanese-inspired menu and talks about soba noodles, silken tofu and miso paste. With all these unusual ingredients there is not a screwed-up nose in sight! Instead, there appears a genuine curiosity and eagerness to learn.
The class is divided into groups; each group is allocated a work station with a volunteer and is responsible for one dish. I listen-in on the team making Soba Noodles with Broad Beans, Mint & Lime as they read through their recipe and step-by-step instructions. There are notes on what to collect, from a Microplane grater to a small basket of broad beans and a handful of snow peas. The broad beans, coriander, snow peas and mint were all harvested from the garden. They divide their chores and make a beeline for the ingredient table. It’s reminiscent of MasterChef and in fact there is an annual MasterChef competition for the students, judged by high-profile chefs.
I wander from station to station and watch in wonder as this well-behaved class finely chops mint and coriander, makes wafu dressing for the salad, cracks eggs for the omelet and juliennes vegetables for the quinoa and vegetable sushi. It doesn’t seem long ago that many Australians had no idea how to even pronounce this healthy, ancient grain.
There are lots of different techniques required and I am ever so impressed with their knife skills!
As the grandson of one of the volunteers slices nori en julienne for the top of the salad, it’s clear that his grandfather is a strong advocate of the program that has run at this multicultural school for three years. ‘Sadly, some of the kids here eat takeaway seven days a week and have never sat at a table to eat,’ he says. Here, they learn how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, organic seasonal food. ‘Some of the kids are now teaching their parents how to cook,’ he continues. ‘We all sit and eat together. The tables are reminiscent of a home table, they always have vases of flowers, and are neat, clean and tidy.’ He proudly tells me that his grandson has really advanced his skills and even sears his own tuna and snapper for sushi at home. All proof of the positive changes the program plants.
A few months ago, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited Kilkenny Primary. The couple sat on the deck and shared a meal with a class of year 7s. They were thrilled when Camilla’s Lady in Waiting poured Camilla a drink, and then served them all.
It’s time to clean up and set the tables. There’s no whining or slacking off. Everyone pitches in to help. The vegetable scraps go into buckets and are fed to the school chooks that scratch around the orchard.
Outside there is a pizza oven, and in the scrub, a fire pit. One of the parents tells me that a kangaroo tail was cooked up in it not long ago. The scrub is used for overnight camps, and cubby houses have been built for the younger students to play in, many of whom do not have access to one at home. For those of you who have read my book A Family in Paris, it really is a world away from school life in France.
Dishes are plated up and placed in the middle of the tables to share, around bunches of golden wattle. Aromas waft by as dishes are passed about. The children try everything and comment politely on the food, diplomatically even, such as ‘It’s not my favourite but I’m glad I tried it’. Still no fuss and no screwed-up noses as they slurp up miso soup with silver beet.
The only complaint is that there is no salad left. Not bad for a bunch of 10-year-olds.