Improving literacy, one recipe at a time

Raymundo Zavaleta (center) gets a compliment from chef Marc Vetri (right) on his onion-chopping.
Raymundo Zavaleta (center) gets a compliment from chef Marc Vetri (right) on his onion-chopping.
Posted: June 04, 2014

Chef Marc Vetri stationed Max Kane, 12, and his brother Grant, 9, in front of a cutting board and prepared to impart some culinary wisdom.

"Here's what I want you to do," the chef behind the acclaimed restaurants Vetri and Osteria began somberly. "Don't cut yourself."

In between chugging olive oil and cracking wise, he imparted knife skills, food-preparation techniques, and a killer panzanella recipe to a crowd that included restaurant workers with limited English, kids finding their way around the kitchen for the first time, and parents and grandparents navigating their families' nutritional needs.

These are some of the demographics that will be served by the Free Library's new Culinary Literacy Center, which opened Monday with demonstrations from Vetri and fellow chef Jose Garces.

The first-of-its-kind program to merge culinary and nutrition training with literacy, math, and science education is housed in a sparkling new demonstration kitchen in the Central Library.

Siobhan Reardon, the library's executive director, said that the idea was born out of discussions about how to renovate the disused fourth-floor space, which had once housed a cafeteria.

She saw an opportunity to create new programming, while addressing a startling statistic: At least half of Philadelphia adults - half a million people - are "low literate," according to a 2009 report by the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., now called Philadelphia Works.

Cooking, she added, is "science, it's math, it's literacy - and it's fun," she said. "A lot of people who are low literacy don't typically come to the library, because they're concerned about their literacy level. So this is a way to say, 'You are welcome here.' "

That welcome mat comes in the form of a demonstration island facing nine stainless-steel prep tables. It's rigged up to a video system that allows students to get a close-up view, via TV screens, of the food-prep and cooking process.

There's also a grill top, 16 burners, three ovens, a walk-in fridge, plus an outdoor patio and herb garden that will supply flavor throughout the summer.

The space will host donor events, a variety of cooking classes open to the public, and, it is hoped, cookbook authors. (A schedule is online at freelibrary.org/cook.)

It will also reach very different audiences through an array of nonprofit partners.

There will be grandparents who are charged with caring for their grandchildren, brought in through the Supportive Older Women's Network and Drexel University's culinary program; Center for Literacy adult students, who will have access to a curriculum developed with Penn State Extension Nutrition Links; Philadelphia schoolchildren working with the Vetri Foundation; and Spanish-speaking restaurant workers from the Garces Foundation's English for the Restaurant program, among other constituents.

At the launch event, Garces - who runs restaurants including Amada, Distrito, and Volvér - unfurled his knife roll and shuffled a set of flash cards for cooks from the Abbaye, Maggiano's, and Morning Glory Diner. He was there to help them hone both their English skills and their knife skills.

Garces said the impact of such lessons "is pretty instant. It's not just the English: It's the confidence it gives them in the workplace, and they take that out into the community as well."

English for the Restaurant program coordinator Mallory Fix-Lopez said the library space will make a big difference.

"Even though there are many restaurants throughout the city, they're extremely busy. So finding locations sometimes to do the demos is a little tricky. This is a great central hub . . . to come in and experience working in the kitchen without the pressure," she said.

And once workers start spending time in the library, she said, they may connect with its other resources.

Liz Fitzgerald, the library's new culinary literacy specialist, hopes that's the case. But she's thinking even bigger than that.

"I have the lofty goal of having every resident of the city be able to cook a meal from scratch."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053 @samanthamelamed

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