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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen6:00 amMay 9, 20110

Bruschetta in West Baltimore: 3rd grade chefs show off their skills and their neighborhood

Above: Third-grade chefs-in-training Tatiana Campbell, Danalia Irizarry and Bree Edwards Ross, of Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, prep for cheese omelet-making. (Fern Shen)

The student-chefs in their crisp white coats were hustling Wednesday morning to help whip up cheese omelets for 20, but they weren’t too busy – these third-graders – to describe for a visitor the other meals they’ve served, to groups of as many as 300.

“Well, we make bruschetta – that’s tomato and basil on toast, with mozzarella cheese and sometimes you just put a nice little tip of basil on top of it,” said Bree Edwards Ross, 9, a participant in the Culinary Arts program at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, in Northwest Baltimore.

Chef Connie Johnson works side by side with her students

Chef Connie Johnson works side by side with her students. (Fern Shen)

“And we make a stuffed chicken breast with garlic spinach inside – that’s a nice dish,” she said, warming to the subject of glazes on meats. “We do a roast beef with a rosemary-mustard glaze.”

Enjoying eggs, bacon, sausage and homefries, prepared this day by Bree and her classmates, was a group of lucky real estate agents gathered to hear good things from the Garwyn Oaks Northwest Housing Resource Center about the surrounding neighborhoods – Howard Park, Garwyn Oaks and Hanlon – and to find out about special loan programs offered in targeted blocks there, through the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.

“I hope you sell a lot of homes and the children from those homes come to this school,” said Calvin Rodwell principal Saundra Spratley Adams, addressing the visitors as they sat in the classroom-turned dining room. “We do believe it’s the best-kept secret in Baltimore City.”

The housing specialists want to send that same ‘hidden-gem’ message about these city neighborhoods, where signs of foreclosure and disinvestment mingle with gracious well-kept homes and assets like the Forest Park Golf Course, Druid Hill and Leakin parks, the Gwynns Falls Walking Trail and other features.

One of those assets, it seemed clear Wednesday, was Calvin Rodwell, a city public school where students in all grades participate in the unique Culinary Arts program, receiving once-a-week sessions in professional cooking technique, healthy eating, nutrition and catering. And at the heart of the program is the chef-parent who started it a year ago, Connie Johnson.

An Outlet for Grief

“No traditional American dishes. It’s all international gourmet,” Johnson said, after the breakfast rush had subsided. “I don’t want to be compared to anybody’s mother’s collard greens.”

In other words, these may be elementary school students, but Johnson’s got them making dishes like Veal Saltimbocca.

A caterer and executive chef, Johnson has worked under some top chefs in the area, including Donald Spence and chefs at the Prime Rib, where she was an apprentice. Asked how she came to be heading a program that has her teaching knife skills to second-graders in West Baltimore, she explained that it’s a combination of opportunity and sad circumstance.

calvin rodwell connie johnson chef's attention!

When the students hear “Chefs, attention!” they know it’s time to line up. (Fern Shen)

After her 17-year-old daughter Bijan died of a sudden severe asthma attack, Johnson began volunteering at her younger children’s school, Calvin Rodwell, starting a gourmet cooking club for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders two years ago.

“It was a way to, I guess, channel my grief,” she said, recalling that Bijan always encouraged her to show her younger siblings how to cook healthy food.

Last year, the club evolved into a formal, school-wide program that Johnson puts on with the help of general manager Stephanie Brown, using funds from her daughter’s estate, but also from a host of sponsors and supporters.

Along with learning in the classroom, the children have been catering events, including the school board executive director’s retirement dinner (100 people) and the Leith Walk Elementary School groundbreaking ceremony (300 people). On Saturday, Vegetable Time Catering, as they call it, was scheduled to do a Mother’s Day brunch for 200.

Ditching the Doritos

The name of their catering concern comes from a tradition that has developed in the cafeteria at lunch time: “Chef Connie” comes over to the tables and declares “Vegetable time!” and the children know it’s time to eat all the veggies on their plate.

Demonstrating another tradition before the breakfast guests arrived, Johnson called out “Chefs, attention!” and the third graders lined up along the wall, standing erect, faces forward.

Staying in military mode helps ensure safety amid knives and heat, she said: “No one’s been cut or burned yet.” As in formal commercial kitchens, the students address her as “Chef,” and follow her instructions on everything from plating (they explained how food must never be placed on the rim of the dish) and proper English.

“’I have a spoon,’ not ‘I got a spoon,’” she said, overhearing the children during breakfast service.

calvin rodwell toast station chef connie johnson culnary program

Chandler Green, 9, took his toasting duties seriously. (Fern Shen)

The kids seem to respond to Johnson’s high expectations, perhaps in part because they find the end product tasty.

“It’s a new experience to learn to cook different things. All this chef stuff is good!” said Anaja Bell, 9. “Once, we had fish nuggets that we made and it was awesome!”

They’ve absorbed Johnson’s health message, too. “What’s our big theme here?” Chef Connie asked the lined-up students. “NO SALT!” they answered, in unison. Later, Johnson said she has strong feelings about improving children’s eating habits because “we have a lot of issues in our community around eating and diet and blood pressure.” Parents are getting the message too, she said, describing how one girl’s mother told her, “I went to buy Doritos and she had a fit!’”

Johnson, meanwhile, is always looking for new sponsors and thinking big, pondering ways to make the curriculum available in other schools. Last week she was excited about seeing a pilot that had been shot for a possible Food Channel series about her, tentatively called “Chef’s Angels.”

Healthy Eating, Healthy Neighborhood

After the meal, Mereida Goodman, executive director of the Garwyn Oaks Housing Resource Center, explained how the event fits in with their mission to ensure healthy, strong neighborhoods by helping potential and existing residents to buy and maintain their homes.

“We want to establish relationships with real estate professionals,” Goodman said. “They’re the gatekeepers to home-buyers.”

Speakers from the center described programs that offer existing homeowners financial help with home improvement projects that add “curb appeal” and provide home-buyers with loans that include $5,000 in renovation costs.

Retail on Gwynn Oak Avenue is pretty dilapidated. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Parts of the neighborhood near Calvin Rodwell, including retail on Gwynn Oak Avenue, are pretty dilapidated. (Fern Shen)

Afterwards, despite the rain, the group boarded a van for a tour of the neighborhoods. Goodman urged the realtors to “get off the main drag” and look at the attractive, residential parts. That was pretty do-able in Howard Park, where the Liberty Road/Gwynn Oak Avenue retail corridor was horrendously dilapidated, but many residential side streets were tidy and abloom with azaleas.

It was harder to find points to praise elsewhere.

“Howard Park is good. The last two were terrible,” Laurel real estate broker Bayo Oshinnaiye said by phone later, referring to Garwyn Oaks and Hanlon. “Really big challenges there.”

Still, Oshinnaiye thought the assistance programs discussed at the meeting are “very good.”

Howard Park also has some lovely old homes, like this one viewed here from Norwood Avenue. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Howard Park also has some lovely old homes, like this one viewed here from Norwood Avenue. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“This will help us to sell houses, with guaranteed money for qualified buyers,’’ he said. “I can make a lot of money with them and they can make a lot of money with me. Everybody wins.”

“The big obstacle with most of the people is the down-payment, this helps with that,” he said, adding that the renovation assistance would help committed long-term homeowners, not speculators. “Everyone has to put effort in. Sweat equity. But it will be worth it.”

As for the meal he ate and the young Veggie Time chefs who prepared it, Oshinnaiye was totally bowled over.

“We will have a Christmas party and I am going to have them come to cater it,” he said. “This is a good program for the children. It shows them they can do things in the world.”

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