Welcome to the Screaming Avocado

A high school cafeteria like you've never seen before

For many high school kids returning to school this September, noshing on some greasy French fries is the closest they’ll get to tasting a vegetable at lunchtime.

While lunch at school was once a treat, today thousands of students across Canada ditch their brown bags in favour of buying food at the cafeteria—or worse, from the vending machine—choosing fast food over real food. “We have [students at school] for a big part of their waking hours, for some of them two meals a day, but they have options to buy whatever crap they want,” says Finkelstein.

But chef-turned-culinary arts teacher Paul Finkelstein of Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, Ont., is out to change that, noting that many kids are more skilled at rearranging a freezer than cutting vegetables.

A new café culture

Six years ago, inspired by Californian chef and food activist Alice Waters, he founded the Screaming Avocado Café—a hip culinary arts classroom-cum-restaurant where students from grades 10 to 12 learn to prepare, cook and serve everything from Mussels Puttanesca with fresh saffron noodles to braised rabbit in red wine and Muffuletta Sandwiches (recipe below). Serving 200 meals a day, five days a week, the kids make everything from scratch, using fresh, local ingredients.

“In the Avocado, we learn where our food comes from so it’s not just on our plate and we eat it,” says Allie Core, a grade 12 student who is also a member of the extra-curricular Culinary Club that caters banquets, events and community dinners to raise money for field trips to places such as Tokyo, the Northwest Territories and New York. “I’ve learned more about food than just how to cook it. I appreciate it more.”

The Avocado’s fresh greens and heirloom vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers come from the 3,000-square-foot Seeds of Change organic garden in the school courtyard, which helps foster the forgotten connection between seed and table.

“[Now] I hate when I see something we grow locally, like tomatoes, and it’s in season and you look at the grocery store and it’s from Chile. Why do we have to get food from Chile when it’s here?” says Core.

Good food travels

Northwestern isn’t the only school with a hands-on culinary arts program. Students at Stouffville District Secondary School run the Laughing Olive Bistro and Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ont., recently launched The Food School, both inspired by the success of the Avocado.

Getting students interested is the easy part: Start a culinary arts program and it’ll take off, says Finkelstein, who oversees 200 kids each year.

But student interest isn’t enough, he says: It’s getting the administration on board that’ll make or break the program. And the challenges to that can be great, given exclusive cafeteria catering contracts, vending machines that generate big bucks for schools by peddling sugary drinks and empty calories, and simply not having the facilities to run such a program.

“When people come to visit the school, I always tell the students, ‘It’s great if you come but bring your administrator,” he says. “No matter what you want to do, you’re not going to do it unless they allow you.”

While the cafeteria still serves poutine down the hall, the Avocado gives Finkelstein a place to do what he does best: Inspire kids to connect with real food and to change the way they eat.

“Their homework is to bring the recipes home and cook for their families,” says Finkelstein. “We have kids asking to bring the pasta roller home to make fresh fettucine for their parents. You get those kids who are just so inspired to do it and it makes our job really easy.”

Recipe: Muffuletta Sandwich

This was one of the first sandwiches served at the Screaming Avocado, and it is still a favourite with students and teachers, says Finkelstein. “While kids usually shy away from olives, they can’t get enough of them in this combination. I like to double the mayonnaise and olives and keep the extra for use with other sandwiches—so good!”

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp   extra virgin olive oil

1           red onion, sliced

1 each   red and green pepper, sliced

1 Tbsp   balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup light mayonnaise

1/4 cup pimiento stuffed green olives

pinch    coarse ground pepper

2 Tbsp  Dijon mustard

8 slices Provolone cheese

4 oz.    each sliced local turkey, salami and ham


8         ciabatta buns, piece of focaccia or section of baguette

Method:

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers and sauté until the onion is softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar: cover, reduce heat and cook until the peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a food processor add the mayonnaise, olives, a dash of ground pepper and purée until the mixture is smooth.  

Cut bread in half horizontally.  Spread Dijon mustard on the bottom of each.  Top with turkey, salami, ham, onion pepper mixture and finally provolone cheese.  Spread the inside of the top of the bread with the olive mayonnaise and sandwich this over the cheese.  Enjoy!