On one of the last days of classes before the holiday break, the bell rings at Walker Upper Elementary School, and kids stream for the exits. But Becky Calvert is just getting settled into her “classroom,” a sprawling institutional kitchen with a lot of buffed stainless steel surfaces. “I try to do some of the prep for the kids every week,” says Calvert. The blade of a chef’s knife rings as she swishes it across a honing rod. She cleaves a turnip in two, then a carrot, and then a sweet potato…. “Roasted root vegetables are the main ingredient tonight!” she says, her voice rising over the noise of the convection-oven fan.
For an hour on most Wednesdays, from 3:30-4:30pm, Calvert convenes the cooking club at Walker, guiding about a dozen 10- and 11-year-olds through a recipe. Former Charlottesville City Schools dietitian Alicia Cost launched the program in 2003, and it has been running ever since. A real estate agent by day, Calvert began assisting with the club in 2014 and took over as director two years ago. It’s funded by the schools, but Calvert has worked to secure donations and volunteer help to keep the club thriving.
Some food industry folks, friends of Calvert’s, help out. In fact, one has just bounded in and peeled off his jacket. “Hello, Miss Becky,” he says. It’s Ian Redshaw, the star chef formerly of Prime 109 and Lampo. He looks like a rocker ready to take the stage, with black Converse high-tops, skinny jeans, a flannel shirt, and spiky hair.
Redshaw washes his hands, dons an apron, and brandishes a knife. “What can I do for you?” he asks Calvert.
“I want those quartered,” Calvert says, pointing her blade at a mesh bag of brussels sprouts.
“Okay,” Redshaw says, “I am quartering brussels sprouts!”
Now the kids start trickling in and the volume increases, as their voices and laughter join the din of the oven fan.
“Hey, guys!” Calvert says, greeting Alex, Nakiya, Avarie, Maya, Amelia, Si-Si, Alanah, Zeniah, and Gabby. “Has everyone washed their hands?!”
“Yessss!” says the chorus of young cooks, positioning themselves in front of their chopping mats.
“Today we’re going to do orzo with roasted vegetables and olive oil and lemon juice—and you’re going to love it!” Calvert says.
“Oh, goody,” says Gabby, 11, a tall girl with a brown ponytail.
Calvert had warned that the class would be “fast and furious,” and she did not lie. Within 60 minutes—from first slice to plating—the group will have created a big, delicious batch of root vegetables and orzo with fresh herbs, plus the dressing Calvert mentioned. The coup de grâce are thin, delicate, cheese crisps, which Redshaw makes with the kids, using finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. “They taste great,” Redshaw says, “like Cheetos!”
It’s a marked contrast to what’s usually available at the cafeteria, where city schools are reimbursed only $3.43 from the federal government for each lunch they provide. With labor and other overhead costs, the net amount available to provide one school lunch is between $1.50 and $1.75, says Carlton Jones, nutrition administrator for Charlottesville City Schools.
At cooking club, students work with fresh, organic produce and they are learning a lot—new knife skills, the meaning of “chiffonade,” how to juice a lemon, and a special move called the “cat’s claw,” which the chef teaches the kids to reduce the risk of cutting a fingertip while dicing.
“I would say our schools try to do everything we can to expose all of our kids to healthy food choices,” says Krissy Vick, the city schools community relations liaison. She lauds Calvert’s cooking club, while also citing several other programs, including one that sustains vegetable gardens tended by students on school grounds.
After Calvert mixes the vegetables and orzo in a big stainless-steel bowl and adds the dressing, the students line up with plates to be served. Calvert spoons out the meal, and Redshaw doles out the cheese crisps. The young cooks head into the cafeteria to eat. With the oven turned off, the kitchen is quiet now, and the sound of the kids’ chatter filters in.
Calvert dries dishes and straightens up the kitchen. Redshaw gives her a quick hug and bids her adieu.
This was the penultimate class for this group of students (next up: chocolate chip cookies), and Calvert admits in a low voice that she feels a bit sad, knowing that soon she won’t be seeing them every week. “They really are sweet, and so capable,” she says.
She tells the story of one former student whose mother held down three jobs to keep the family afloat. Because of this, she had little time to cook, so the student often prepared dinner. “That’s why I do this,” Calvert says. “It’s a lot of fun, and I love the kids, but the best part is knowing that they leave here with a new skill.”