Love the squash curry from Lao Laan-Xang or the duck fat fries from A Pig in a Fur Coat? Some Madison middle school students are learning to prepare some of the city’s favorite dishes while raising money to improve their school.
On Thursday, Georgia O’Keeffe Middle School will host its third annual “Top Chef” fundraiser. The event is free and open to the public and takes place at the school, 510 S. Thornton Ave., from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Over 30 O’Keeffe students trained with local chefs to learn how to prepare a dish for the competition. Similar to the Bravo television show of the same name, a panel of celebrity judges will sample each dish and decide which group will earn the "Top Chef" title.
Participating restaurants — A Pig in a Fur Coat, Merchant, The Coopers Tavern, Lao Laan-Xang, Sardine and Forequarter — will sell small plates (prepared by their staff) for $2 to $6, with all proceeds benefiting a cafeteria beautification project at O’Keeffe.
Over the course of six weeks this semester, student teams visited their partner restaurants to meet the chefs, practice making their dish, and learn more about the history of the restaurant and the culture behind the food they prepare.
O’Keeffe’s principal Tony Dugas said he was inspired to start the fundraiser after his work at Citizen Schools in Boston, Massachusetts. There, the students completed apprenticeships as part of the curriculum to learn more about post-secondary options. He wanted to provide similar opportunities for Madison students.
“The kids are working side-by-side with experts to explore new fields, learn new skills and build a foundation for their futures and really know what it takes to get to that place,” Dugas said. “It’s a really hands-on experience... kids are actually producing something.”
Sone Inthachith is the co-owner of Lao Laan-Xang on Atwood Avenue and an alumnus of O’Keeffe. He sees the "Top Chef" experience as a way to expose students to ideas and cultures beyond what they see at home.
“I teach them some of the differences between eastern and western cultures,” Inthachith said. “I would like to think I’d open up their worldview a little bit more about different customs and traditions.”
Preparing the meals helps students navigate a kitchen. They learn to handle knives, food safety fundamentals and how to balance flavors in a dish. Students also help clean up the mess after their bellies are full.
Ann Devitt, 13, a seventh grader at O’Keeffe participated in "Top Chef" last year. She said she often prepares meals for herself and helps with family dinners.
“I cook a lot at home,” she said. “I usually make breakfast or lunch and sometimes parts of dinner with my family.”
At Lao Laan-Xang on Wednesday, the students and parent volunteers shared a meal with Inthachitch.
“I learned that it is a part of the Lao culture, whenever you invite someone to your house, you first feed them,” said Nate Brundage, 12, a sixth grader at O’Keeffe.
After their meal, students worked to refine their dish for Thursday’s competition. They are making larp, a salad of minced beef seasoned with fresh herbs and spices, served on a bed of lettuce with a side of sticky rice and cucumbers.
Under Inthachitch’s guidance, each student had a hand in preparing the larp from start to finish. Over the course of 30 minutes, students chopped vegetables and steak, steamed the rice and carefully plated the dish.
“The feeling of teamwork is really great. Having something that we all get to work toward is a really great way to do a thing like this,” Ann said.
For Dugas, the "Top Chef" experience is not just about learning how to prepare a delicious meal, but also connecting students with community leaders that they may not have encountered otherwise.
“This is an equity move for us. There are a lot of kids who don’t have the financial or social capital that other kids have,” Dugas said. “Our school is providing that for some students so they have a chance to connect with people that, on their own, they may not have a chance to meet."
Although the experience is coming to a close, O’Keeffe seventh grader Lydia Jovaag, 12, is already thinking about what she’ll make in eighth grade.
“It was a lot of fun," she said. "I would do it again next year.”