Sat, November 13, 2004
Ex-chef has taste for teaching good cuisine

STRATFORD - Is there something going on with kids and food these days? Are young people waking up to the limitless possibilities of a loftier cuisine?

Last month, in a bid to improve the physical fitness of its schoolchildren, the Ontario government banned pop, potato chips and other calorie-laden junk foods from vending machines in the province's elementary schools.

But even without this government intervention, are the taste buds of our young people undergoing a transformation? Could it be that, with the proliferation of the food culture on television and in print, young people are at least rethinking some of the long-held tenets of the fast-food generation?

One thing is certain: the food revolution is stirring the pot at Stratford's Northwestern secondary school.

And nowhere is there better evidence of this trend than in the kitchen of Paul Finkelstein, head of the school's culinary arts program.

Finkelstein is the former head chef at The Old Prune, one of Stratford's finest eateries.

Several years ago, "Finkel" (as his students prefer to call him) accepted the daunting task of trying to get teenagers (already seriously hooked on the greasy, salty, sugary pleasures of burgers, fries, chips and pop) interested in healthier eating habits.

In a former high school auto shop, Finkel (a graduate of the prestigious Stratford Chefs School) replaced motor oil with the extra virgin olive kind; he took away the wrenches and hammers and put up racks of whisks and spatulas; and where students once chopped old car frames, they now chop romaine and arugula.

For his inaugural class, Finkel took a group of students who were thoroughly immersed in the burger-and-fries mentality and turned them into passionate, committed food groupies.

Over the years, his "cooking class" has been a phenomenal success. There's a long waiting list of students wishing to enrol in the program and this fall his students opened The Screaming Avocado, a school cafe that offers alternative menu items for students who seek a healthier diet.

At first glance, one could easily mistake Finkelstein for one of his students. His hair is long, his clothes vintage and his pace frenetic.

He met his wife, Amanda, at Stratford Chefs School. When they married and started having a family (they now have three children all under the age of five), Finkelstein was still working as a professional chef.

The long hours kept him away from home a great deal of the time. He decided to make a change.

When he embarked on his new career as a high school teacher, he thought he'd be able to spend more time at home. But instead of enjoying the more normal hours of a "day job," Finkelstein expended an equal portion of his considerable energies on his culinary classes.

In addition to his regular teaching schedule and his running The Screaming Avocado, Finkelstein and his student chefs regularly hold gourmet evenings featuring celebrity chefs from the area.

Finkelstein realizes he is pushing these kids hard. Like all those who work in the food industry, he knows that true excellence is only achieved through Herculean feats of labour.

He feels it's important to send this message to his students: the rewards of any given endeavour are equal to the sweat equity you put into it.

But sometimes his students push back. And this give-and-take relationship makes a visit to his classroom a unique experience.

On a typical morning, a group of 20 or more students, in various renditions of the classic cooking-school uniform, come filing into class.

Some days they are eager to begin. Other days, they seem weighed down with unmistakable teenage inertia.

The students hassle Finkelstein with 101 questions, none of which have anything to do with food.

One student forgot her homework. Another budding chef asks for the morning off to work in the computer lab on a history project.

The two girls who showed up in flip-flops are told they can't cook that day. (It's a safety issue.)

Another student sticks his head in the door and shouts "Hey Finkel! I need a cookbook on something with a lot of chicken in it!"

Somehow, he manages to keep a quiet semblance of self-control. He recognizes the unique potential of his students, but he also knows they face many pitfalls. But in his crusade to give them something of value, he refuses to be distracted.

Later, he confides with an observer that "I can't do what I do without these dedicated kids. They hassle me . . . but I just hassle them right back."