A Day With Chefs, Children, and Michelle Obama

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You may not be able to get a group of grown-ups around a boardroom table to agree on just about anything, but you can actually get a group of kids to eat raw rhubarb when seated around a lunch table. This now stands as a proven fact as a result of Michelle Obama's most recent campaign, Chefs Move to Schools. In June, the First Lady and White House chef Sam Kass invited 15 chefs and more than 30 grade-school students, from Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, to participate in a pick-your-own/cook-your-own lunch in the White House organic garden.

Not even the 90-plus degree heat could stifle the excitement of the children, who ranged from second to sixth grade. What better field trip could a kid ask for than an afternoon at the White House with the First Lady and a gaggle of chefs? Actually the chefs may have been even more excited. Most were parents with children and, parent or not, chefs tend to love children. Must be something about our nurturing nature ...

The object of the day was to pair each chef with two children in 15 teams. Each team was responsible for picking two vegetables from the garden (ours were peppers and baby squash), then cutting, trimming, washing, and preparing each veggie as part of a sort-of deconstructed salad that would be topped by fresh chicken grilled in the White House kitchen and served with a special rhubarb cobbler, courtesy of White House pastry chef Bill Yosses.

"What's that," asks one. "Rhubarb," says another with matter-of-fact confidence. "Are we really gonna eat this?" was a common question.

Once in the garden, the kids and chefs engaged each other, and the sense of pending magic came alive. The first round of kids' comments came while the teams waited for the arrival of Mrs. Obama. One of "my" kids looked at me and said, "You have a ponytail but you're not a girl." Another looked at Marcus Samuelsson and said, "Boy, he's really dark, and I thought I was black." (Marcus had earlier joked about actually being sunburned from a recent trip.) In the meantime, there stood Tom Colicchio, John Currence, and Linton Hopkins—bald, all three—and not a single Mr. Clean joke. Go figure.

The moment was briefly interrupted by Chef Kass, who had the big job of trying to keep everyone on time, on track, and safe. Sam set the ground rules: everything had to be picked by the children, with the chefs providing guidance and safety tips; everything picked had to be washed at a washing station carefully constructed by the WH kitchen and garden staff; then, everything had to prepared—by the kids. Once the rules were in order, the First Lady arrived and announced it was time to pick!

Rachael Ray had a head start, as she and her kids had already picked a good handful of Sun Gold tomatoes. She was worried she might be disqualified, but was warmly reminded this was not a contest. BTW, watching Rachael pick with two children was like watching three kids. Her glee and their glee were indistinguishable. The laughs, the giggles, the "ooooh! There's another one!", were really awesome to behold. I quickly determined that Rachael Ray is a fully grown 12-year-old bundle of genuine joy.

There were chefs and kids, laughs and giggles in just about every corner of the garden. The First Lady was very quick to find the veggies she and her team were working on—no doubt because she's an insider. All teams diligently lined up to wash their stuff and you could hear kids asking other kids about their pickin's: "What's that," asks one. "Rhubarb," says another with matter-of-fact confidence. "Are we really gonna eat this?" was a common question. Keep in mind that some of the veggies included rhubarb stalks, whole fennel, kale, and other veggies that are often completely foreign to kids.

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Paul J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images

We all moved to the prep tables and began working with the kids to safely cut, pull, pick, and toss stuff together in a wild array of impromptu presentations on platters and serving dishes. Watching Cat Cora with her kids was like watching a benevolent ballerina bestow patience like pixie dust. Watching Tom Colicchio's gentleness made me want to throw my hat into the ring for the next Top Chef with a genuine feeling that I could win if he were my judge! It was just the coolest thing in the world to see chefs, who— although at times they can seem completely menacing— are truly good mentors. With kids, the mentoring took on a warm new dimension.

Then came the truly fun part— serving and eating. Each chef sat at a table with other chefs and kids, and we all dug in. There were ooohs and ahhs, but there were also some eeews and blahhhs! The most challenging veggie was the rhubarb, which came to the table whole (un-sliced) and tossed with a dressing. The rhubarb got mixed reviews at most of the tables, but I had a strategy (backed by five kids' worth of parenting experience). After one of "my" kids ate the rhubarb and made noises unheard by any human, I laid down the challenge: "Let's see who can make the funniest face after taking a bite of rhubarb and swallowing it!" The rhubarb plate was cleared within 10 minutes and the faces, laughter, and odd noises went on for a good 10 minutes more. I made seven new friends at that table, all under 13 years old.

While I relish all I saw that day, far too much for a single column, I have to highlight one of my favorite moments. When the food was ready, Marcus Samuelsson served to each of the kids with a gentle enthusiasm that caused one of the female White House kitchen staffers say, "Oh, how sweeeeeet." They usually say "Wow, how sexy" when they look at Marcus. (It's true. I've seen it happen.) But here was the single, sexy Marcus Samuelsson exercising his own new rule: "Kids first, everyone else afterward."

That's when something really hit me. Shouldn't all kids be first in all we do? It's automatic for parents to feel this way about their own kids. But to feel this way about all kids, whether they are yours or someone else's, whether you are single or married? Wow!

Imagine the change that could happen and the richness of our future if all grown-ups treated all kids with such respect, starting with a promise that they will all be well-fed—every single one. Maybe the boardroom would become a kinder, more thoughtful place. When the grown-ups disagree, perhaps they could default to a funny-rhubarb-face contest. Maybe something open and constructive would get done.

Perhaps this might actually be what all this hubbub is intended to accomplish.

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Michel Nischan is the CEO and president of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, a pioneer of the sustainable food movement, and a James Beard award-winning chef and author. More

Chef Michel Nischan wears many hats, from dynamic restaurant owner, award-winning cookbook author, and media personality to food policy advocate and non-profit foundation CEO. A proponent of sustainable farming, local and regional food systems, and heritage recipes, Michel has long been a leader in the movement to honor local, pure, simple, and delicious cooking. He is owner and founder of Dressing Room, his homegrown restaurant in Westport, CT, and CEO and president of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which is dedicated to nourishing neighborhoods by supporting increased production and access to healthy, fresh, and affordable locally grown food for the well-being of all.
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