Railroad Street Youth Project culinary apprentices get a chance to flex their skills at annual dinner | Arts and Culture | berkshireeagle.com

In the kitchen at No. 10 Steakhouse, in Great Barrington, Charlotte Brazie, 15, left, and Dana Sanchez, 15, right, portion scallops for the upcoming Railroad Street Youth Project’s Annual Culinary Dinner, a fundraiser that highlights the efforts of the RSYP Culinary Apprenticeship Program.

GREAT BARRINGTON — In the kitchen at the No. 10 Steakhouse, on Castle Street, two 15-year-olds stand before a metal contraption. It appears as if it could be a Medieval torture device, but it’s a French fry cutter.

Reservations and information: 413-528-2475, 2024culinarydinner.rsvpify.com

“Stick a potato in there, slam that down and French fries come out the bottom,” says executive chef Zee Vassos.

The pair — students in the Railroad Street Youth Project Culinary Apprenticeship program — look at each other, then offhandedly shrug with an air of “that’ll be easy.”

Soon, they’ll be cooking a multi-course meal for an audience of around 200, at the Culinary Apprenticeship Dinner, a Railroad Street Youth Project fundraiser, 5:30 p.m. May 18.  The fundraiser is hosted at a private home in Great Barrington. Tickets are $150 each.

After Dana Sanchez tried it out, Charlotte Brazie took her turn on the French fly slicer.

“The young chefs are the driving force behind the dinner,” said Vassos, the program’s lead mentor of three years. “They have professional chefs there to help them, a professional catering staff to serve the food. It’s a chance for them to really showcase their talents.”

The students themselves spearhead menu development based on what they’re interested in cooking. This year, that includes a roasted chicken — accompaniments to be determined, probably by what’s available at farms — and a lemon custard with rhubarb berry compote and shortbread.

Over the 8-week semester, a handful of young people meet after school, every Monday and Thursday, at No. 10. In 2-hour sessions, which often include guest chefs from other restaurants, Vassos teaches the students not just about kitchen work, but also the ins and outs of operating a restaurant.

One week, the crew left the restaurant to forage for ramps and wild leeks from the woods. Another, they went to meet fishmongers.

“So they’re seeing different sides of the industry,” Vassos said. “It’s not just about being in a kitchen peeling potatoes for eight weeks.”

When Steve Root started the program in 2006, it was both a solution to a problem and an extension of Railroad Street Youth Project’s mission: “creating space for youth in town and getting young people to see different possible futures for themselves in our community,” as Ananda Timpane, the organization’s current executive director, put it.

Root was looking for ways to put students in fun activities that could potentially turn into jobs. Steve Picheny, then chef at the former Pearl’s restaurant, needed help in his kitchen.

Dana Sanchez puts a tray of French fries on a cooling rack after a days lesson that included slicing and cooking them. Before she left, though, she snagged one French fry as a tasty bite to enjoy.

“At the time, the idea was just to connect young people with the culinary world,” Timpane said. “And what we found out was the power for young people in our area to connect with mentors who are passionate about their field.”

Over the years, the program quietly grew alongside Railroad Street Youth Project.

The dinners existed from the beginning, but they were initially pretty small, mostly for friends and family. They became popular because, well, word got out: the food was good. Really good. And more and more people wanted to try it.

“Eight years ago, we outgrew restaurants,” Timpane said. “So we started doing it as an annual gala.”

Railroad Street Youth Project also started offering similar programs at workplaces from a cosmetology office to an animal sanctuary.

“But we wouldn’t have apprenticeships if we didn’t have the culinary apprenticeship. It all started there,” Timpane said.

Chef Zee Vassos cites volunteering to mentor young cooks in the Railroad Street Youth Project’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program as the most meaningful part of his career.

Though he more recently took over the program, Vassos has volunteered as a mentor since 2012. “I always list it as the thing on my resume I’m most proud of and that I value the most: working with the young chefs over the years,” he said.

Students will wonder why certain ingredients are used or why recipes are in a certain order.

“Seeing things through a fresh set of eyes can really teach you a lot,” he added.

On the first day of the semester, Vassos always sits the seven or eight students in a circle and asks them what they want from it.

“To me, the most important thing is to really let them drive the vision and curriculum,” he said.

Students might answer: “I want to make types of fish I’ve never had,” or “I’ve only ever had chicken Parmesan from a kitchen so I want to try making that.” Or even just, “Can we make snickerdoodle cookies?”

“I like how much room he gives us,” said Charlotte Brazie, 15, a student this spring.

“Oh yeah, he goes by what we ask to learn,” adds Dana Sanchez, 15, who also did the apprenticeship last year.

Dana first took the course because she knew she was interested working at restaurants. Many mentees have gone on to professional cooking careers, including one who’s currently working for Vassos at No. 10. She took the course again because she learned lots of cooking skills, had a great time and made new friends.

“I’m as happy with the culinary apprentice who never wants to go into the kitchen again as the ones who become chefs,” Timpane said.

After they learned how to use the French fly slicer, chef Zee Vassos took his students to the main kitchen to fry the potato sticks in a bubbling vat of oil.

This afternoon, Dana approaches the French fry cutter, learning that it’s harder to operate than it looks. She presses the full force of her weight down on it, but the potatoes keep splitting or smashing.

Eventually, Dana finesses her technique, moving a little more slowly, and — success! — a handful of fries peeks out on the other side of the contraption.

His caution turns to rally, with Charlotte joining him. “Go go go!” the two yell, as if in the stands of a sports game, as Dana cautiously keeps pushing the potato through. Finally, the fries land in the bucket beneath the machine.

Next, it’s Charlotte’s turn at the machine. She grabs a potato, places it as she watched Dana do, and looks at her friend, who gives her a little nod as if to say “You’ve got this.” Then, she focuses in, looks at the fry cutter as Vassos and Dana watch on, and presses down.

Reservations and information: 413-528-2475, 2024culinarydinner.rsvpify.com

As part of Railroad Street Youth Project’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program, high school students get experience in the restaurant industry by …

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