STAGE Culinary Arts Puts Healthy Eating Front and Center

You never know when a simple idea will lead to a project that can make a difference. For Laurel Elm, general manager of Saint Dinette, a popular restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, inspiration struck while mentoring a young chef in search of his next culinary step.

Interested in finding a way to help aspiring chefs, and curious about working with kids, Elm reached out to visual artist and educator Mark Rivard of Rivard Art Education. Together they enlisted chef Shane Orto, of St. Paul’s Octo Fishbar, and developed a unique educational opportunity for students: STAGE, an experiential culinary arts program. Their mission, as their website explains, is to allow “students to see realistic paths to careers in creatively driven fields like the culinary world.”

Although not a common term unless you’re schooled in the kitchen, “stage” (pronounced “staʒ“) comes from the French word “stagiarie” meaning trainee, apprentice or intern. It’s most often associated with someone who works as an apprentice under a renowned chef.

A shared victory

Elm and Rivard’s STAGE took St. Paul Creative Arts Secondary students out of school and into the kitchen to learn all sides of the restaurant business. Over the course of 12 weeks, the students worked with different restaurants and food industry partners. The curriculum focused on concepts like budgeting, ticketing, money management, restaurant ownership and cooking at home for their families.

“A lot of these people weren’t friends before they started and now we’re hearing that at school it’s changed the way they interact with each other,” Elm said. It’s “also changed the way they interact with family. …

“I went into this assuming we’d be teaching kids—one of the most surprising things was how much we learned from them and from each other.”

Food for thought

The collaborative nature of the STAGE culinary experience is one of program’s greatest strengths. With the combined talents of Elm, Rivard and Orto at the helm, STAGE not only calls on students to work together but also provides a unique opportunity for the area’s culinary professionals to volunteer their time and talents for the greater good.

Today’s schools are resource-strapped and arts programs are often cut from budgets to spare other priorities. Home economic programs—once a staple to arm young adults with essential life skills—have all but disappeared.

STAGE was completely self-funded through online donations from the community.

“We need to focus on teaching kids that healthy eating is available and affordable,” Rivard said. “A healthy mind is important and it starts with what you’re eating. If we can teach our students to eat well, understand that good food is affordable, it translates all the way down to their test results. … It gives them confidence and energy, all those things stem from what we put in our bodies.”

This article is part of  “Living for the City,” a Rewire initiative made possible by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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