The Chicago chefs behind Pilot Light aim to change how kids relate to food.
There he was, cooking with Michelle Obama on the White House lawn, but Paul Kahan was thinking of home. Kahan, the acclaimed chef behind Big Star, the Publican, Avec and Blackbird, visited D.C. last June as part of the First Lady’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which calls on chefs to “adopt” schools and work with parents and educators to make learning about nutrition fun for kids . After a day of meetings and seminars, Kahan couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago so he could get to work and start changing the way kids think about food.
No small task, to be sure. His first step—the genesis for many bold plans—was to gather a group of chef buddies, including Jason Hammel from Lula and Nightwood, pastry chef Della Gossett, Ryan Poli of Tavernita and Matthias Merges, formerly of Charlie Trotter’s, for beers and brainstorming. “We thought we could use our power as chefs in the [public eye] to change the way kids eat,” Kahan says. And with that the fledgling project, called Pilot Light, was born.
Long before the White House adventure, though, Kahan had been thinking of ways to better connect people to the earth and to their food, something he felt was lacking since the processed-foods revolution decades ago.
“My idea is to improve the world through food, not become a filthy rich restaurateur and celebrity,” he says. “Ultimately, food is such an important part of my life. It’s based on my love for food and dining and service, smelling dirt and getting my hands in the soil.”
Other Chicago groups, such as Common Threads and Purple Asparagus, also focus on issues related to kids and food. Pilot Light is working with them, but this newest task force is approaching the subject from a different angle:
“We are a group of chefs and people who care about healthy eating and childhood obesity,” says Merges. “We want to impact 100 percent of the students and we want to do that through changing the curriculum. We want to give them tools to make great decisions on how they view food and order food.”
Merges and the other Pilot Light chefs are working with students at Disney II Magnet School on the Northwest Side (where Merges’s two kids, Greti, 9, and Tatum, 6, are students), incorporating food and cooking into the existing social-studies curriculum. Eventually, they hope to expand to other Chicago schools.
If first-graders are studying the economic differences between the 1800s and today, for instance, the chefs might talk about how cooking and food have changed throughout history, Merges says.
“When kids are brought into the world of food, they’re more receptive to try something new,” he says. And having a more diverse diet means healthier eating habits in the future, he says.
So far, the chefs have hosted two events at the school and have another slated before the end of the school year. During their first event, they used social-studies lessons on Thanksgiving to talk about locally grown foods. Kindergarteners, for example, peeled locally grown sweet potatoes, boiled them and mashed them—then enjoying those potatoes, prepared by the chefs.
“The kids were really fascinated by the delicious foods they got for lunch [and also] by how it was processed and how it’s served,” Disney II Principal Bogdana Chkoumbova says. “This is just one more great opportunity for the kids to explore concepts from different angles.”
Pilot Light is beginning to collect data about how well its lessons are being received at the school. At least ten other schools have contacted the chefs about using the program, Merges says. While he and a few of the other chefs involved have kids, most—including Kahan—do not. They’re just committed to enlightening the next generation of food consumers, Merges says.
Kahan compares Pilot Light’s early days to those of Green City Market, the city’s sustainable farmers’ market and a favorite of local chefs, which was founded in 1998 and started as a small, grassroots movement without much funding. “I saw how [it] gave all these chefs a great tool to be better at what they do,” he says. “It’s the same thing with Pilot Light. We can get a lot of chefs involved, institute curriculum and set a good example. We know it’s going to take a long time.” He sees this as being a five- or ten-year project, minimally, he says.
“It’s kind of full circle,” he adds. “We’re making our living preparing good food and cooking it and serving it. It only makes sense we’d want to facilitate that at a very young age.”
Follow Pilot Light on Twitter, @pilotlightchefs.