Culinary Arts apprentices prepare for Youth Project fundraiser dinner

EGREMONT — Elijah Harris, 14, chops the thyme and stirs it into the ravioli filling.

"Oh, yeah," he said after tasting it.

Upstairs, at John Andrews Farmhouse Restaurant, three young culinary arts apprentices are finding out that lemon rind and thyme go really well together. They also now know how to deal with an ever-stretching stream of ravioli dough.

They learn how gluten relaxes. They're getting a feel for the dynamics of it.

"You don't want it to dry out so you can still stretch it," said Dan Smith, John Andrews' chef-owner, who for nearly 10 years has provided training with other chefs to Railroad Street Youth Project apprentices through its Culinary Arts program here and at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

You also don't want to be watching any of this if you're hungry.

It's already dark out, and Smith's downstairs kitchen is all steamy and heating up fast, ready for a busy night the week before Thanksgiving. Upstairs, in another workspace, Smith and students put together parts of RSYP's upcoming Culinary Arts Apprenticeship Dinner at Crissey Farm in Great Barrington, ahead of which 300 raviolis, among many other things, have to be made.

Emi Sarminto, 13, is making dough in the standing mixer. After a salt spill, Smith explains that one quick way to measure out salt is to use the dimple in your cupped palm.

"It levels off into a tablespoon," he said.

On a nearby stovetop, the whey from Smith's own ricotta is draining through cheesecloth. Smith said the whey byproduct adds flavor to other dishes. He saves it, and tells the group that most households waste about 30 to 40 percent of what they buy.

The dinner is the RSYP's major annual fundraiser that allows it to run a host of vocational-based programs for young people ages 13 to 21, said Huck Elling, RSYP's apprenticeship coordinator.

This group already has cooked basics like roast chicken, tacos with all the toppings, pasta with sauces and soups. They've made apple cider and glazed doughnuts, which they're still talking about as they cut the dough for ravioli.

RSYP's Culinary Arts program has produced some serious chefs who have worked in local restaurants like John Andrews. With careers in mind, some former apprentices have gone on to further their education at culinary schools.

But for most students, the apprenticeships lock in solid cooking skills. Now they're feeling what it takes to cook and plate for big parties and fundraisers. In this case, about 150 guests will have shelled out $125 per person for the farm-to-table feast.

It will be worth it, given that lemon/thyme cheese ravioli filling alone. Also on the five-course menu will be a duck leg confit with a corncake, greens surrounded by a swirl of sweet potato, and butternut squash empanadas.

The dessert is no less than a chocolate truffle tart with mint cookie crumble ice cream the apprentices made at SoCo Creamery.

The lanky, fast-moving Smith and students realize that two large-ish raviolis on each plate will be a safer bet than one big one that could develop a structural weakness that might reveal itself later in boiling water.

"If we make three, it's 450," Smith said. "I think two will look better on a plate than one."

Nitan Vadukul, 14, is working the hand-crank pasta-maker. He knows what it's like to cook for many — his mother is a caterer who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Vadukul is unfazed by a developing hole in the pasta. Smith shows all three how to double it up, and problem solved.

"Part of learning is when stuff doesn't really work out," he said. "Trust me."

Smith laughs the laugh of a seasoned-by-flames-of-failure chef.

They begin squeezing the edges to keep the filling in. The filling and surrounding halo of dough have to cook together, Smith explains.

While Sarminto grates lemon rind, Harris gets a cutting lesson. Smith shows him where to put his fingers so they don't get chopped off.

The assembly line is on. Raviolis are going into a plastic box to prepare for freezing.

"Eight are done," Smith said.

Vadukul and Harris manage sheets of dough that span the long worktable. They marvel at a bubble in the dough that survives repeated trips through the machine.

Elling's daughter is one of 11 youths in the program, too. She's out sick today, but Elling is here making ravioli. Elling said this program is so good for a bunch of reasons.

"It's totally free, and we pick them up and take them home," she said.

On Mondays a group works with other chefs in the Red Lion Inn's massive commercial kitchen. They work with the Red Lion's Adam Brassard, Mezze Catering's Daire Rooney and Main Street Hospitality Group's Brian Alberg, who started the program more than 10 years ago.

Tuesdays, they work with Smith at John Andrews, one of the first anchors dropped in Berkshire County's farm-to-table movement.

Smith asks everyone if they ever eat fast food.

"Occasionally," Harris said.

That's not happening in Vadukul's house.

"My mom makes me food," he said.

"I ate at an Arby's years ago and thought the roast beef sandwich was the best thing I ever had," Smith said. "Now I think, `How did I eat that?'"

Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871 or @BE_hbellow.


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