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‘Eat, educate, and entertain’: A conversation with Chef John Skaggs

Wed, Aug 15, 2012

Summertime brings a new rhythm to the Wexner Center’s education department as camp groups arrive en masse for outdoor architecture tours. As a docent and the center’s education assistant, I have the privilege of both leading and coordinating tours. This summer, a group from Hilliard KinderCare visited the Wex twice, first taking a guided architecture tour, for which I was one of their docents, and returning for a garden-to-plate educational experience and meal led by Chef John Skaggs of the Wex’s Heirloom Café. John and I sat down to talk about working with kids and how the Heirloom tour came to be.

Diana Gerber: People may or may not know that the Wex offers free guided tours through our education department. Groups on architecture tours see the building’s exterior, interior, and permanent outdoor installations, and talk with our docents about the center’s function and the history of building’s site. We tailor tours to the participants’ ages, so for this elementary school–age group, we honed in on basics and rooted the conversation in what they saw. Architecture tours are ongoing, but your Heirloom tour is something new. How did it come about?

John Skaggs: This tour evolved from a program called Cooking Caravan, which is based on three things: eat, educate, and entertain. Cooking Caravan started with a group of guys meeting and working on educational activities, like showing kids how make dinner with whatever’s in the fridge, and includes John Croke, who works both at Heirloom and KinderCare. We connected those two organizations for this tour. About three years ago, I did a veggie tasting with John’s summer KinderCare group. This veggie tasting had these kids excited to be eating radishes with salt—gourmet!—and their parents were shocked. The kids have kept up with food education, in part by gardening. That’s how they ended up here.

Similarly to how you were showing these kids the Wexner Center’s building while explaining how the organization works, we are showing them the ins and outs of a restaurant, starting with the garden and ending with a meal. They were able to have experiential education. The kids were out in the garden, picking the basil tops, seeing where they came from. It’s like a “bring your kid to work day.” And that’s a huge part of what Heirloom is: we want to be very transparent with our guests and customers.

DG: It sounds like this group of students already had an understanding of gardening and cooking. What seemed to be the students’ reaction to seeing the kitchen?

JS: They were interested. It’s encouraging to me. I’m taught so much by the students. Their interest encouraged me to give them more information. They were very respectful group of kids, you know?

DG: What surprised the kids when they were here?

JS: The amount, just the raw quantity of ingredients. Or, by somebody chopping something: it’s the action that it takes to get that sandwich to the table that surprised them.

DG: How did you choose which foods to cook for this group?

JS: I wanted to use recognizable ingredients, and I wanted to do something that they could make for themselves at home, something participatory. Maybe they make a large sandwich that everyone shares, instead of many small sandwiches. It’s a way of showing them that we all take from the same plate. It’s something that I don’t really explain, but I think they get it just by being here. I try to touch on these really basic, elementary things: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and then a little bit of dairy; talking about portion sizes but at a level they are going to understand, so not talking about grams and cups but just showing.

DG: Many younger students go on architecture tours and hear the word “architect” for the first time. When you ask, “Who makes a building?” they might mention construction workers but be unaware of the people working on those preliminary creative and design processes that happen before you start building. And that’s normal, and it gives us the chance to talk about conceiving a building meant to display different types of art. Did anything similar happen with this group on your tour?

JS: That’s why I started with the garden. Where did the food come from? It’s very important to know that. We talked about it from where I see it as starting (the garden), then about the customers’ point of view. Then I have them come around to the other side of the counter to see what the cashier does. So we have them move through each position, if you will, so that there is more of a realization and awareness that it does take so many people, that everyone has a job to do.

DG: So it’s also a bit of career exploration, right? Maybe it’s not stated, but so often kids think, “OK, I can be an artist,” and they limit themselves within the art world to the most visible profession. But then you start a conversation with them and they start to realize that yes, they can be an artist, but they can also be a preparator, a curator, an educator…you can do so many things around the art.

JS: It’s the same recipe with the kitchen: You can deliver the food, you can serve the food, you can cook it, prepare it, grow it…there are so many things you can do. We want to get the next generation interested in this stuff. Without that, we’re kind of lost at sea. I want to do this all the time. I want to educate people on what I do so that they can take up the torch.

John let me know that while this program was just a pilot, he hopes Heirloom can offer more programs like this in the future, both for the general public and educational groups. In the meantime, don’t miss your chance to get fresh, local food to your plate. Not only is Heirloom open Monday through Friday, the Wexner Center’s farmer’s market, the Market at 15th & High, opens on August 23, and Heirloom will be there, serving up quality dishes made with produce purchased from the market’s farmers.

PARKING UPDATE: Construction at 15th and High. For more information click here.

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