By Anna-Claire Terry
When the hard work of Gina Smith’s agricultural class paid off in a full garden at the Opelika Learning Center, a culinary aspect was added to the class to promote skills that students can take home to their families and use in day-to-day-life.
The OLC students, ranging from ninth-12th grade, are instructed by two seasoned chefs and have produced dishes in their classroom that one would find in an upscale restaurant. Meals include eggplant parmesan and pasta carbonara. Chef William Walker, director of the Auburn University Wellness Kitchen and dining services employee of the Auburn Athletic Department, and Chef Leonardo Maurelli, executive chef at the Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center and professor of Introduction to Food Production at Auburn, teach the class each week on a volunteer basis.
This is the first class of its kind the OLC has offered. Plans for the class were orchestrated by Dr. Sean Forbes, director of O Grows. Students in the class cook with produce grown in their garden and choose their own recipes. Several members of the class are also involved in the O Grows program.
Smith said she has enjoyed having the opportunity to watch the class process new information and realize they have learned something when they use their hands to produce a meal tat they started from the ground. She added that the these skills are valuable to the lives of her students. “It’s practical life skills. ideally, what we want to do is teach them these gardening and culinary skills and encourage them to take them home and use it there,” she said. “It could even turn into a career. It may spark their interest, but even if it doesn’t, they’re getting skills that they can use in real life.”
The chefs teach students how to plate the food for others, and the entire class enjoys the meal together. Walker said he has always worked as a chef, and he could not turn down the opportunity to take the skills and gift he had been given and teach young people. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he said. Walker created a GoFundMe page under the name “OLC Culinary Class” to help raise money for the class to purchase cooking equipment and food.
Maurelli said his love of teaching is part of the reason he volunteered with the class. “Part of cooking is teaching. This is a craft. This is something that you can still do with your hands and take with you as practical knowledge,” he said. Maurelli also said that the class teaches more than practical lessons because students learn about respect, hard work and interacting with people in a work environment. “They become engaged and learn real-life work through the craft.”
According to students, the class is enjoyable and one of their favorite parts of their day. Shaniah Martin, 11th grader, said she likes to better her cooking by learning new techniques, and she will use the skills outside of school. Malcolm Robinson, a 12th grade student involved with O Grows for two years, described the class as “amazing.” “You can be in a bad state of mind, but when you come into this class, it all goes away. We get along with everybody and all do our jobs.”