Monday, October 17, Sugar Beet Schoolhouse Programs, in partnership with Autre Monde, presented the first of what will likely be many “family dinners.” Under the auspices of the Autre Monde team – John and Christine Aranza, Dan Pancake, Beth Partridge and Matthew Miller – children from Sugar Beet Schoolhouse prepared and served dinner to guests who packed the dining room and spilled out onto the back patio. It was excellent seeing young children having a wonderful time cooking good food and serving it to their family and friends.
I asked Cheryl Munoz, Executive Director & Founder of Sugar Beet Schoolhouse, what motivated her to start the Schoolhouse. She explained, “I wanted to use my passion for good food and community development to provide folks with opportunities to learn about food from seed to plate. When people feel connected to the land and the food they eat, they care more about our environment, make better decisions about their food choices and, I believe, thoroughly enjoy one of life’s most transformative pleasures – cooking and eating with other people.”
At River Forest Kitchen, Munoz and Miller run cooking classes where kids learn essential kitchen skills. But cooking is just part of the program. In conjunction with the Park District of Oak Park, Schoolhouse kids have been tending gardens at Cheney Mansion, and this year they surpassed their goal of donating 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to the OPRF Food Pantry.
I emailed the Autre Monde team to ask how the goals of Schoolhouse matched those of Autre Monde, and they responded, “Autre Monde was built on the idea of being a truly neighborhood restaurant with a green focus. We have always taken a 360-degree approach to what it means to be a green community restaurant; teaching the next generation the value of cooking from scratch, with quality, well- sourced ingredients. As Sugar Beet Coop is our neighbor and we have been members since the inception, supporting Cheryl and the Schoolhouse makes total sense. Chef Beth’s background as a culinary program creator and instructor and our server Matthew Miller’s role as an instructor at the Schoolhouse were obvious additional reasons for our participation.”
Working the serving line at Autre Monde’s Family Dinner was Munoz, of course, as well as her husband Anthony and children Cedar and Cora. “We know what kids like,” says Munoz, “but we also know that our job is to introduce young people to new flavors with lots of positive encouragement. We joke that we’ve done our job if our students don’t have to resort to eating baked beans off of a Frisbee through college because they learned how to fry an egg and make a pot of soup in our classes. Whether they remember me or not, I’m sure that these skills will stay with them for a lifetime.”
“I love watching students reap the pleasure of eating a meal they prepare from start to finish, “Miller added. “It’s exciting to see kids eat new foods or enjoy foods they previously disliked. I am satisfied when kids report proudly that they cooked a Schoolhouse dish at home for their family. The students’ creativity, enthusiasm and emerging confidence inspires me.”
There will be more family dinners. According to the Autre Monde team, “Because of the holiday (Thanksgiving), we’re targeting Dec 5th for the next event. The format may change a little, but we loved the spirit and energy in the room.”