We love happy stories that make others’ lives better with good honest hard work and a big dose of heart.
David Schwartz, caterer and chef for 42 years, exemplifies that model. A few weeks ago, he stood in the classroom of a St. Louis inner-city charter school where he set up a makeshift kitchen in preparation for a cooking class he was teaching. The room was a small dimly-lit space with several tables, chairs and a large teacher’s desk at the back near a window.
David was donating his time to teach healthy, inexpensive cooking to 12, 10th grade-inner-city girls. The recipes he created would be tasty with less of the middling stuff that adds empty calories to anybody’s diets but especially to many teenage girls. Dessert would be the exception.
Driving to the school, which is located on the south side of the city of St. Louis, trash and blight stand out amid a few blocks of attractive row houses and gentrified blocks of small boutiques and restaurants. The school is across the street from a popular outdoor historic open market. The sidewalks are silent, except for one corner near the school where some kids are standing, talking or bouncing a basketball. Lift for Life Academy was the first independent charter school to open in the city in 1998. Now it has grades 6-12 and is housed in a building that was originally a bank, making the transformation look kind of kitschy. Still standing are the teller booths that now serve as tiny offices for staff. Some of the classrooms and restrooms have been carved into what used to be the bank’s vault.
David arrived early to set up, as chefs do before they cook. They want to be as efficient as possible. He shed his olive-green Polo shirt to put on his white chef’s coat with “Soiree” embroidered on the front. Soiree by David is the name of his company, which caters social events, locally and nationally. And then, he plunged right in, bending over two tables. He laid out the ingredients and tools of his trade like pieces on a chess board. A large toaster oven was placed to his right atop a shelf near one of two work tables. He put out plastic plates and silverware, napkins, plastic cups and water pitchers filled with ice water, pans, aluminum foil, mixing bowls and necessary kitchen utensils—knives, strainer, cutting boards, measuring spoons and cups. He had set the stage and was ready to begin, using supplies purchased at bargain prices from Aldi and a nearby dollar store.
I am one of four mentors of these 10th grade girls who participates in a program called Metro Leadership League. The nonprofit has mentored girls in grades 8-12 every Wednesday afternoon since 2015. The program is designed to develop leadership, life and social skills. The mentors serve as coaches to help the girls choose a healthy path to long-term success after high school. They learn how to write thank-you notes, resumes and cover letters and interview to gain part-time jobs and summer internships. They are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and develop talents they never thought they had. In the process they acquire poise, manners, self-confidence, the ability to stand up, speak up, and shut up when prudent.
Part of healthy living is to eat well. When I called David, whom I’ve known socially for years, to ask if he’d donate his time to teach a class, he said “yes” without hesitation. David has taught at many of St. Louis’ cooking schools. He studied at the famous Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and at the Thai School of Cooking in Bangkok. He also studied under French chef Daniel Boulud and assisted Julia Child with cooking demonstrations in Washington, D.C. He’s funny, entertaining and as Rudyard Kipling said, “As open as the day.” I felt he’d relate well to the girls and vice versa.
As the girls filed into the classroom, dressed in skinny khakis, sweatshirts and T-shirts, David handed each a printed sheet with the three recipes. The 10th grade MLL president introduced him, then David went into action, wiping sweat from his brow. His hands fluttered like hummingbird wings as he cut and chopped. The girls leaned in as he ticked off the ingredients that would go into the first recipe: parmesan cheese cups filled with a salad niçoise. He talked about the advantages of eating fresh produce and then admitted, “…but I always liked vegetables from cans. I like my vegetables mushy.”
Tuna would provide the protein. One girl blurted out, “I don’t eat tuna.” Any good chef can alter a recipe. “We can leave the tuna out of the salads for those who don’t like it,” David said. Then he called up the girls sitting at Table 1 to make the dish. “There are a few basic rules,” he said, as he passed out blue rubber gloves to the girls, explaining the importance of hygiene. Quickly after putting on gloves, the girls began measuring, chopping, melting the cheese, and forming them into cups. There were olives, scallions, roasted grape tomatoes cut into slivers that he had prepared the night before to save time. He explained how to roast the tomatoes. There were canned tomatoes as well, English cucumber because it’s healthier, he said, frozen peas, hard boiled eggs cut in quarters, diced picked beets, kalamata olives, all of which he showed the girls how to cut into slices, pieces and diamonds.
Everything during the presentation was a teachable moment. He told the girls how to take skin off a raw beet. He used pickled ones in a jar. “They have more flavor. A little kick.” He opened cans of both white and light tuna and mushed them together. “I purchased each for $1 a can at Aldi,” he noted. And then he told the story of how he’d eat tuna as a kid and would crush potato chips on top. “Not so healthy,” he said.
David held up a bunch of scallions. One of the girls shouted, “What’s a scallion?” “It’s a baby onion,” he replied, describing the aroma and taste of different onions and what they add to food. Before showing the girls how to melt parmesan, he noted the difference between hard and soft cheeses. “Parmesan is a hard cheese and can be formed into shapes. Mozzarella, which we’ll put on our pizzas today, is a softer cheese.” Then he added, “The softer cheeses have more calories.” “Really?” said the girls in unison. Once the cheese was melted and cooled enough, the girls shaped them into cups by putting the cheese around the top of a glass. Working like an assembly line, while one shaped the cups, the rest added the various ingredients. The first course was ready after a quick squeeze of balsamic vinegar on each for those who wanted it.
Time to eat. The room was buzzing like a beehive. David asked everyone to sit down. “Presentation,” David stressed, “is so important.” Scientists say that if food looks good, it actually tastes better. The salad niçoise was served on a long rectangular mirror which David cleverly transformed into a tray. “This is a fun way to serve and the mirror was a bargain purchased at Goodwill for just $2.99.”
Then, as if on cue, there was an explosion of eating. Forks on plates, chewing and chatter. “Yum.” “This is soooo good.” “May I have another?” He then circled the tables asking one of the girls if she had tasted the salad and how she liked it. She did not look up, too busy plunging her little fork through the contents of the salad. David had his answer.
Table 2 was called up to the main workstation to help with the next course, assembling chicken topped white pizzas. Soft flour tortillas would serve as the crust. Using the tortillas, he explained, is much less expensive than pizza dough, and he showed the package of them for which he paid .89 cents.
Unwrapping a bowl, he took out chicken he had cooked the night before and pointed out the difference between dark and white meat. “Dark meat has more flavor.” He then told a story about how his mother made chicken soup throwing in the entire chicken including the feet. “We loved the skin. We’d take out the chicken feet and suck off the skin which isn’t good for you,” he said. The girls let out a collective, “Yuck.” David jokingly said, “Perhaps that’s why people died so young in those days.”
Assembly line in full swing, one girl was put in charge of taking a tortilla and brushing it with a garlic and olive oil mixture, and the others layered it with the sliced roasted tomatoes, chicken and mozzarella. Someone in the group said she didn’t eat chicken. “We’ll make a pizza without it for you,” David volunteered. The smells were palpable as the girls waited for the pizzas to bake for 10 minutes. They were cut in half and served.
"Table 3, stay seated,” David suggested as he brought over the ingredients to show them how to make a dessert called, “Skunk.” This unappetizing name resulted in a sweet, creamy and compelling black and white log-like confection with a strong chocolate taste. “This is made often with chocolate wafers that are $5 a box. Chocolate graham crackers (which are healthier) taste the same and are half the price for which you get more,” he added. He showed the girls how to make stacks of five crackers held together with a concoction of instant vanilla pudding into which he folded store brand (Aldi) Cool Whip. The graham cracker stacks were lined up vertically on a mirror cum tray to form a log. David then took the extra cream mixture and showed the girls how to ice the log. After, he sifted cocoa lightly on top and demonstrated how to slice it on the diagonal, so each got a piece with the black and white layers.
The piece de resistance came when the class ended and David handed each girl a whisk to take home to practice what he had instructed. The girls beamed and shouted accolades.
David used his passion for cooking and donated his time to make an investment in the health and welfare of these girls. Getting this single guy and the 12 girls together became a recipe for success. One of the mentors who helped him carry supplies to his car, thanked him profusely. He turned to her and said, “I’d be glad to do this again.” In an email to me the next day, he wrote, “I am still reeling from how great the class went and how amazing the girls are. Thank you for recommending me.” I too was over the moon about the results.
Here are the recipes David used and tested:
Parmesan Cups with Salad Niçoise
¼ cup per Shredded Parmesan Cup
Preheat oven to 375…..on foil lined cookie sheet, spray with vegetable spray place a ¼ cup of shredded cheese. Flatten into a 5 inch circle. Bake in oven for 6 minutes until gold and bubbly. Remove from oven and use a metal spatula to remove cheese circle and place on inverted cup. The cheese will relax around the cup. Cool 10 minutes. The cups can be stored in an airtight container overnight. These can be filled with salad or pasta.
Lettuce, Pickled Beets (come in a jar), Grape Tomatoes (roasted), Canned Tomatoes, Cucumbers (English preferred because it’s healthier), Kalamata Olives, Scallions,
Frozen Peas, Hard Boiled Eggs cut in quarters
Balsamic Vinaigrette Salad dressing
Make sure all items are cut small so that they will fit into the parmesan cup. Squirt balsamic vinaigrette over the salad.
Healthy Chicken Pizzas
Chicken Tenderloins or any cooked chicken
Shredded Mozzarella cheese
Sliced Roasted Tomatoes
Preheat oven to 425
Toss chicken strips in salad dressing and sauté until cooked, set aside to cool. If using cooked leftover chicken, skip this step.
To roast tomatoes, cut and place on foil in oven for 20 minutes, cool.
Place tortilla on a rack on a cookie sheet, brush tortilla with Olive oil and garlic. Add toppings, sliced chicken first, tomatoes and top with cheese. Bake 10 minutes.
Let sit 3 minutes and then enjoy
Chocolate Graham Crackers
- 3oz package instant pudding
1 cup milk
2 containers of frozen whipped topping, defrosted
Empty contents of pudding package into a bowl, mix with milk and then fold in one container of whipped topping.
Take a cookie and ice with whipped mixture, top with cookie, repeat, repeat till you have a stack of 5 cookies. Keep doing this until the cookies are used up.
Then take 1 stack with whipped icing on top, lay it on its side and then add the next stack until you have a long loaf. Ice the whole thing with leftover filling and then completely with second container of topping. Seal and refrigerate at least overnight. Slice on an angel and see the stripes of the skunk.