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Finklestein’s Fine Food School

Paul Finklestein is creating a stir in his community and changing the way kids see food with the help of his youth culinary club.

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As I walk into the Screaming Avocado Café excitement simmers in the air like the huge vat of consommé bubbling away on the stove. At one cooking station two girls learn how to wrap a beef Wellington, while another duo gossip at their station, mincing carrots and leeks. While he chops Cory Diamond, 17, tells me he wants to be a chef. He looks me in the eye: “This program is the reason I get up in the morning.”

That program is Culinary Arts at Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, ON and its leader Paul Finkelstein has been hailed as Canada’s answer to Jamie Oliver. Food TV’s new fall series Fink follows the charismatic teacher and 16 of his Culinary Club students over six months as they take trips to the local abattoir to see where the meat they eat comes from, plant heirloom tomatoes in the school’s organic garden, and learn about healthy food made from scratch.

Some of the students come from farming backgrounds, and many are learning about food for the first time. Finkelstein says there are kids who walk into the kitchen clueless: “I could give them a chicken leg and tell them to cook it and they would put it in the frying pan without any fat or oil, and turn it to high. They haven’t been brought up with cooking.” The heart of the documentary is a passionate teacher who wants to change how kids think about food. In so doing, he’s changing families as well.

On the day we meet Northwestern’s classroom is chaotic. The kids are preparing a three-course fundraising dinner for parents, teachers and members of the tight-knit Stratford community. The money raised goes back into the program and helps offset costs for Culinary Club trips. Finkelstein’s students have traveled across Canada, sharing their program with other schools; but the kids are more excited to tell you about the fabulous restaurants they’ve eaten at in Toronto, New York City and Tokyo. The trip to Japan took place during the summer of 2005. For Finkelstein, the trips are more about watching teenagers become young adults. “We told them, this is Tokyo – you have six hours on your own and meet us back here. We put our trust in them.”

The Screaming Avocado’s menu is mouth-watering and a far cry from the pizza and french fries available in the school’s cafeteria down the hall: slow roasted Perth County pork loin, Thai noodle salad with salmon, stuffed sandwiches on home-baked focaccia. The kids prepare all the lunches, and are open for business five days a week.  They even cater pizza parties for classes – all healthy, thin crust pizzas.

Toronto nutritionist Rena Mendelson calls what Finkelstein is doing for health education a paradigm shift. “He’s getting kids involved in food preparation. There was a time that every kid got home economic classes, and kids were getting hands on experience. Then home economics disappeared. What Paul is doing is ground-breaking.”

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Finkelstein isn’t preachy about always cooking as a family – he knows it is tough nowadays.

“The family dynamic has changed. It’s hard to arrange mealtimes and parents believe is easier to pull something out of the freezer and shove it in the oven. Yes, making food takes a bit more time, but it isn’t impossible and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Buy some chicken legs, get a head of broccoli and potatoes and you’ve got a healthy, inexpensive meal.”

Finkelstein believes some families are disconnected with cooking but knows it isn’t hard to get back to a reality of cooking simple, healthy meals together.

Debbie Brodie-Ritz agrees. With three boys, and her and her husband both working, they had started to rely on ready-made products. Then her son, Jared – who placed 7th in the Ontario Skills Culinary Arts competition last spring – took over the reins in the kitchen. “He refuses to eat anything from a box,” she grins, adding that Jared and his friends “spend hours in the basement talking about food.” Her biggest concern is giving Jared her debit card when he goes shopping. “He’ll go to the butchers, with whom he has a personal relationship, and order the nicest cut of steak, perfectly marbleized, and it will cost us a small fortune.”

Brodie-Ritz not only enjoys having a chef for a son. She praises Finkelstein as a teacher.

“Paul saw something in Jared, who is that kind of kid who is active, but doesn’t focus in the classroom. Paul saw energy he could harvest. Jared is not lazy, he is really driven, and Paul was able to keep him busy, to keep him focused. He is a gem.”