IMMOKALEE — The Immokalee Culinary Accelerator is an incubator for culinary ideas and fledgling businesses who need some help getting off the ground. The state-of-the-art facility features cold and hot kitchens, bakery equipment, a massive freezer and refrigerator with ample storage space, a lab and office space.
But on Nov. 7, the facility was transformed into a classroom for 15 Tribal members who came to learn how to cook healthy meals. Sponsored by the Allied Health Department, five professional chefs worked with the budding chefs as they sliced and diced, measured and mixed and simmered and stirred a variety of healthy and flavorful dishes.
“November is National Diabetes Month,” said Suzanne Davis, the Tribe’s Allied health program manager. “We wanted them to prep and cook it themselves instead of just watching others do it.”
The chefs, including Tribal member Lorraine Posada, took the student cooks through the recipes, teaching at every step.
The menu included a citrus salad; another salad with romaine lettuce, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pomegranate seeds; roasted pork loin with roasted root vegetables; Benihana style hibachi chicken with brown rice; cocoa zucchini muffins; jam good gluten free cookies.
“We want to help and teach, no matter what level you are,” said Ruth Fehr, chef and the Culinary Accelerator’s business development manager. “We are here to help you learn today.”
The day of hands-on learning was greeted with enthusiasm by the participants, many who cook at home and were eager to learn how to eat more healthily. They worked diligently, listened carefully and improved their kitchen skills. In time, the recipes on paper began to emit the aromas of the luscious dishes they would become.
Before they began to prepare roasted pork loin with fennel, Chef Ahmed El, Culinary Accelerator program manager, taught a group of students about the importance of “mise en place,” a French term that means putting everything in its place. Having all the ingredients needed for a recipe measured, cut and organized before cooking makes it much easier to cook, he explained.
Chef Daniela Craciun taught knife skills to a group tasked with cutting a large amount of vegetables; she showed them how to make it easier by not lifting the tip of the knife off the cutting board as they worked.
In the bakery kitchen, Chef Fehr demonstrated how to make gluten free cookies by turning oats into flour with the help of a blender. As the students mixed ingredients for cocoa zucchini muffins, Chef Posada explained why it’s important not to overmix wheat flour.
“It will get too dense and hard,” Chef Posada said. “You should add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix it just until it’s incorporated.”
Over at the meat station, Chef El showed students how to deglaze a pan and make a sauce with chicken stock. By steeping a few sprigs of rosemary in the sauce, the flavor is infused and the tough rosemary leaves don’t make eating the dish a problem for diners.
“Your food at home can be better with just a little garnish,” Chef El said. “Appearance and consistency is the number one goal at restaurants.”
As the food cooked and the deserts baked, participants reflected on the work they just completed.
“I learned about contamination,” said Lee Jumper. “You have to keep chicken and meat away from other things because you don’t want to contaminate the vegetables. I never knew that, at home I just mix everything together. I won’t do that anymore, it can make you sick.”
Charlie Tiger came to the class because he wanted to know how to cook a good and healthy meal. He cooks a lot at home, but wanted to know about healthier options.
“I learned about searing and using different seasonings,” said Tiger, We Do Recover program supervisor. “It feels good, we learned a lot today. Once we get clean and sober we have to make sure to eat healthy and take care of our bodies.”
When the luncheon feast was laid out on the buffet table, they all enjoyed the meal they created. Talk around the tables included a recap of what they learned as they cooked. One person pointed out that the fennel used for the pork loin was actually part of the onion family.
A few of the chefs addressed the group during lunch.
“I’m thrilled that you were here and learned something,” said Chef Fehr. “My goal is to inspire and move you and make a difference.”
“Medicine can improve your symptoms, but food can do more than that,” said Chef Craciun. “You should always prepare your food in a healthy way.”
Although the day’s lesson was over, some participants still had questions. The day’s menu included a lot of fall foods, such as root vegetables and pomegranate seeds. One asked about seasonality of food.
“Summer foods are fast growing and have more moisture to help you adjust to the heat,” said Chef Fehr. “Winter and fall foods are warming foods which help keep you warm.”
Chef Posada encouraged the participants will take the recipes home to their families.
“I hope we pass on to our kids that health is important,” she said. “We all have to have the knowledge to take care of our bodies.”