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What's on the Menu at School Today? How About Some Gourmet Crepes
The spicy-sweet aroma of fresh tomatoes stewing in herbs wafted through the maze of hallways on the third floor of Frankford High School.
At the source of this enticing smell -- the culinary arts classroom -- 26 students crowded forward to get a closer look at visiting chef Michael Katz's chopping technique.
Normally, Katz would be in Jerusalem, overseeing a group of three gourmet restaurants. But last week, thanks to Israel's Foreign Ministry, he flew here to host a series of educational cooking programs.
Some, like a demonstration at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a Chanukah dinner prepared along with top-rated Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov, catered to Jewish foodies. But his consulate guides also booked him at places like Frankford and Kensington high schools, where Israeli cuisine was more of a distinct novelty.
The goal was to show that Israel is so much more than its conflict with the Palestinians, said Deborah Baer Mozes, director of cultural affairs for the Consulate General of Israel here.
"I get to show the other side of Israel -- or the real side of Israel, as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Philadelphia's also a restaurant town, she added, "so what better place to bring a master chef?"
Frankford was included in the tour because of its reputation for the culinary arts, said Baer Mozes. The program garnered national attention after the 2009 documentary "Pressure Cooker," showed how teacher Wilma Stephenson used tough love to push her students to win a stunning number of college scholarships, year after year. Impressed by those achievements, Food Network star Rachael Ray surprised the school this spring with a makeover for its classroom kitchen and featured Stephenson's students on her television show.
On Dec. 2, all eyes were on Katz as the master chef introduced himself. Few of them had heard of the renowned Le Cordon Bleu in London, where Katz had taught, or the top American restaurants he referenced. Others didn't understand the prestige he carried from working in two- and three-star Michelin-rated restaurants.
But they all seemed to recognize that Katz knew what he was talking about. They leaned forward, watching quietly for more than three hours as Katz led them through the preparation of a chicken dish accompanied by a cucumber salad and ice-cream-filled crepe.
"Start with the things that might go wrong," Katz said, pouring milk for crepe dough into a measuring cup.
"Why?" he quizzed the crowd.
"If it doesn't work, you can make another one," a student in the front piped up.
Katz nodded, smiling.
"There's no stress in the kitchen, there's challenges," he said. "Once you take out the word stress, it's easy."
He demonstrated how to chop herbs, four ways to slice a cucumber and tricks to plate a classic French chicken dish so that it looks like a restaurant entree.
"Nice!" one girl exclaimed as Katz drizzled the tomato sauce around chicken slices delicately fanned over a yogurt salad.
The nonkosher menu was devoid of references to Jewish or Israeli cuisine. Katz said he purposefully modified the demonstration to show the students skills they would have to perform later this year at their high-stakes cooking competition.
After hours of waiting, the students wasted no time sampling the finished products.
Latifah Dollard, 16, stared off into the distance as she slowly chewed a bite of chicken. She'd never tasted flavors like that before, she said.
"It's sweet and it's juicy and then it's salty," said Dollard, a sophomore.
Stephenson said it was one of the best demonstrations she's hosted in 12 years of teaching culinary arts. Just the fact that Katz would come here, she said, was "mind-boggling."
Katz rounded out his week with a lecture on Israeli cooking at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, the Chanukah dinner at Solomonov's restaurant Zahav and a hands-on class with chefs-in-training at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.
Katz said he was glad to be able to use food to connect with people from diverse backgrounds.
"They always hear about Israel as guns and wars and conflict," he said. "Even if they don't remember the exact connection with Israel, they remember something good from Israel."