Children learn keys to the kitchen during summer program at Smith Voke



Published: 07-31-2017 8:50 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A perhaps unexpected byproduct of last week’s culinary training program for middle schoolers came when Chef Nelson Lacey realized how unanimously memorable cleaning the kitchen floor was for campers.

“Out of everything we do, they like cleaning the floor,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s just so satisfying to squeegee it,” said Sophie Leone, 12, of Deerfield.

Lacey started the one-week program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School about eight years ago. It takes place each July, fostering a love for cooking in youngsters who may consider attending the school in future years.

While Lacey imparts much culinary wisdom throughout the week, he said the program’s most important goal is for the students to have fun.

“They all chose to be here because they enjoy cooking, so I want them to leave here still enjoying to cook,” he said.

Grey Roessler, 11, of Florence wasn’t shy in the kitchen last week, and she’s got a few small battle burns from dropping fish in the fryolator to prove it. She showed them off with pride.

“I was one of the only ones who felt brave enough to put it in,” she said, adding she also picked up some sweet knife skills during the week. “It was really fun.”

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Silverware clanked on Thursday in the school’s dining room as the students’ families tasted the end results of a busy week of prepping. The 20-item menu created by the children featured appetizers of clam chowder and shrimp-stuffed mushrooms, entrees including chicken parmesan and stuffed pork, and cannoli and lava cake for dessert.

Jaslena Bassett, 11, of Chicopee, learned she can make chicken parm that tastes just as good as her grandmother’s. Perhaps better, the youngster said.

“My grandma works at a restaurant and I was inspired by that,” Bassett said, adding she also learned how to make her own fresh dough and how to properly season a meal.

The meal started as a bunch of ideas on the whiteboard. In the end, everyone’s idea was somehow incorporated into the final menu.

“Obviously a lot of it didn’t make the cut, but a lot of it did,” Abby Burgess, 12, of Sunderland said.

To his mother’s delight, Elliott Gomes, 12, cooks dinner for himself most nights since taking the program last summer. Last week he learned how to make stuffed pork, zucchini chips, fried fish “and a lot of other things that are really delicious.”

The young chefs also learned the key to working in any kitchen: withstanding high temperatures.

“It’s a hot kitchen, but it’s all about attitude,” Lacey said with a smile.

Thursday’s dinner served as an opportunity for attendees to realize the fruits of their week’s labor.

“These garlic twists are really easy, but they taste so good,” said Leone, picking one up and taking a bite.

Kim Keough, assistant chef, said Lacey is known for sharing another skill with program attendees: “He is the master of the bad joke, and the kids love it.”

The kids say they had a lot of fun, from screams about creepy fans in the walk-in freezer to a choreographed dance to Pitbull’s “Fireball,” which was inspired by Lacey’s flame-intensive demonstration on the wok.

“Seeing it all come together — it was awesome to me,” said Burgess.

Clusters of children congregated in the kitchen in turns while dinner was going on, inspecting the trays and helping with dishes.

“Feels wrong for you to be sitting down and eating?” Lacey asked, laughing, as one of those groups wandered in. “That tells you you need to be in a kitchen!”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at