OUSD food lab ignites students’ passion for cooking

Amani Griffin and Destiny Ndubuisi arrived at the Oakland Unified Schools District’s Central Kitchen in West Oakland on Tuesday to cook recipes that reminded them of home. 

For Griffin, it was a peach cobbler recipe that her grandmother taught her. Ndubuisi prepared a dish inspired by jollof rice, a popular food in Nigeria, his birth country. They walked away with so much more, including newly discovered passions for cooking, and job and internship offers in the culinary arts. 

As the winners of the school district’s inaugural food competition, their creations will be served to OUSD’s 35,000 students during the upcoming school year. The Skyline High School senior and recent McClymonds High School graduate were humbled by the praise the judges, including professional chefs Lev Dagan and Nora Haron, and OUSD nutrition services staff, heaped on their dishes. 

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to learn something new,” said Griffin, who graduated from McClymonds earlier this year. “I learned how to grow my own food, take food from the garden, cook it in the kitchen and make something beautiful.”

Along with a dozen other high schoolers, the pair spent six weeks interning at the Central Kitchen, OUSD’s state-of-the-art warehouse and cookery that opened this year. They cultivated herbs and produce in the Central Kitchen’s instructional farm and greenhouse and learned about nutrition, environmental justice, and the culinary arts. It cost $71 million to build, funded with money from two school bonds.

The internship, which is in its first year, culminated with the food challenge, where seven teams competed to cook a unique dish in the hopes of having their meals added to the school lunch menu.

Each team created display plates of their entrees and desserts. Credit: Amir Aziz

Many of the students’ meals were inspired by their own cherished cultural dishes: They cooked up their versions of Korean bibimbap, Salvadoran pupusas, and Vietnamese pho, as well as some fusion experiments, like a sushi-style burrito and Ndubuisi’s jollof-fajita rice, which the team termed “jahita rice.” 

“The reason we decided to make a pho dish is because in our schools, we hadn’t noticed that there was any real Asian-style food,” said Emma Prchlik, who created the Vietnamese noodle soup with her teammate Andy Chen. Many of the interns lamented the current lack of diverse food options at school as one of the reasons for creating their unique meals. 

Judges also enjoyed stuffed peppers and a tortilla chip salad bowl with a kale smoothie. Desserts included a variety of fruit cups, apple crisps, and chia pudding. 

The challenge was not only to craft a tasty meal, but also to use ingredients that came from the Central Kitchen’s garden or are commonly found in school cafeterias, to meet the USDA nutrition requirements for school lunches, and to come up with a recipe that could be replicated in school cafeterias across the district and appeal to elementary, middle, and high school students. Students were also judged on the story behind their meals and the dish’s presentation. All of the young chefs received accolades.

Patrick Botman, serves his team’s dish “green leaf pupusas,” to OUSD chief academic officer Sondra Aguilera. Credit: Amir Aziz

“You guys have done an amazing job—asking us to judge you has to be scary,” said Gwen Taylor, a judge and member of the district’s nutrition services team. “We’re looking for young, talented individuals. If you need a job, come see us.”

But it was Griffin’s peach cobbler that left Taylor, a self-appointed “peach cobbler queen,” stunned. 

“When I walked past your table I told you I’m the peach cobbler queen. I may have to give you my hat,” Taylor said to the McClymonds graduate.

Griffin, who cooks at home for her younger siblings and grandmother, learned the recipe from her other grandmother: freshly cut peaches, cinnamon, nutmeg, a squeeze of lemon juice,  and vanilla extract, topped with oatmeal and a dollop of yogurt. “I wanted to go back home, where we always have a good time, and parties, and we always cook peach cobbler,” she said about her inspiration behind the dessert. 

Ndubuisi, a senior at Skyline High School, immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria with his father, brother, and sister in 2018. Ndubuisi said that since his mother, who would usually cook for the family, is still in Nigeria, he and his sister sometimes share cooking duties at home. He knew from the first week of the internship that he wanted to create jollof rice, which traditionally incorporates tomatoes, onions, tomato paste, peppers, and spices that give it its signature red hue. But with ingredient limitations, he had to make some adjustments, like using brown rice and different seasonings and vegetables. The result was a spicy rice stir fry with bell peppers, carrots, onions, zucchini, corn, and jalapeños. 

Destiny Ndubuisi (left), and Amani Griffin smile after hearing feedback on their meal. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Ndubuisi told his sister about the modifications, she was appalled. “I told my sister, we’re not using the same seasonings, and she was like, ‘How is that going to be jollof rice?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to do it!’”

Despite the substitutions, Haron, founder of the IndoMex pop-up in Oakland, was so impressed with the team’s meal that she offered both Griffin and Ndubuisi internships with her on the spot. 

During their meal presentations, each of the students talked about their inspirations and aspirations. Rebeca Juarez, a senior at Madison Park Academy, helped her team create “green leaf pupusas,” a spin on the traditional stuffed flatbread. She learned to mix spinach and water with the pupusa dough from her mom.

“My mom is vegan. And she’s done it for us and makes it healthier by adding spinach,” Juarez said when asked about the rendition. 

Sondra Aguilera, one of the judges and the school district’s chief academic officer, was hesitant to try the green pupusas, since it isn’t how they are traditionally made. But it ended up being her favorite dish of the day, and she even asked jokingly if the team could make 500 of them for her next staff meeting.

“Thank you for making me open my mind to a green pupusa,” she told the students.

Many students came away from the internship and the competition with newfound appreciation for the culinary arts and gardening. Vera Roque, who just graduated from Oakland Technical High School, said that she has a lot more respect for chefs after working with her teammate, Aaryn Satcher, for the last six weeks to create stuffed peppers and apple crisp for dessert. 

David Isenberg, who served as the interns’ culinary mentor, watches Andy Chen (left) and Emma Prchlik as they plate their pho dishes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Katherine Carcamo, a student at Skyline High School, is using the gardening skills she gained to start a community garden with her neighbors this summer. Carcamo and her partner, Oakland High School student Vivian Phung, collaborated on a dish they named “rainbow bites,” which was a green burrito filled with tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and farro cooked with lime, red onions, and cilantro. 

Throughout the internship, students were mentored by David Isenberg, the culinary program director at Ralph Bunche Academy, and Jose Luis Rodriguez, a garden educator with Growing Together, an Oakland nonprofit that promotes healthy eating and sustainability. On competition day, Isenberg helped students in the kitchen, calming nerves and reminding the young cooks when their food was ready to come out of the oven. Rodriguez sat in the crowd during the judging, beaming like a proud parent. 

“I’m super proud of the young leaders we are creating. They’re learning to feed themselves healthy and nutritious food,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in Oakland and graduated from Fremont High School in 2013. “Being able to cook it and prepare it for their family is super powerful.”

The event also celebrated the opening of the Central Kitchen, also called The Center, a 40,000-square foot center that includes an industrial kitchen, instructional farm and greenhouse, a test kitchen, and classrooms. It’s been in the works for the past ten years, said Sarah Pipping, the educational coordinator at The Center. Beginning this fall, staff at The Center will cook 35,000 meals a day to go out to the district’s schools and child development centers. 

The Center will also host field trips and an after-school program to provide garden and nutrition education, along with the internship each summer. The goal, Pipping said, is to give OUSD students more involvement in the food that they eat at school. Igniting students’ love for food and cooking is a bonus. 

Ndubuisi, the Skyline senior, said the internship changed his mind about what career he wants to pursue.

“If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would want to do in college,” he said. “I just used to cook for fun and cooked to eat. I didn’t know it was a passion that I had inside of me.”

Clarification: Nora Haron is the founder of the Indo-Mex pop-up.

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