It is the day before the Big Lunch and there are only a couple of volunteers in the kitchen with a handful of kids doing the mise en place. Lee explains to the kids this is what restaurants do to prepare. Today they are sous chefs. How grand. We mothers are kitchen hands once more. We are hosting a Big Lunch tomorrow for around fifty people who are coming to see the progress of our kitchen garden. We are on display. Our food will be on show. Our kids will be too.
Just as when you are hosting a dinner party, there are a few nerves. But we have been practicing all term. The kids really know how to make pasta dough now. They have it kneaded into their souls. They have been baptised with flour. They are pros at passing the dough through the rollers of the macchina per pasta and getting the tagliatelli just the millimetre-perfect thinness. They know how, after, they must use a pastry brush to cleanse the machine of flour. Never using water. Like old Italian Mammas they have mastered a soft touch and Lee has taught them not to overwork it, and trust me, it’s not easy for kids to stop themselves from pawing the finished product, or even the unfinished product.
Because being in the kitchen is about being tactile. It is about using all your senses. It is about trying new flavours. It is about experiencing strange textures. It is about using your hands and seeing what can come from them. Transforming the simple lettuce and peas into a silky smooth, green soup seems somewhat miraculous to all involved. The lettuce is sourced from the garden and heavily laden with rich soil. It is crunchy and fresh but not all that interesting straight from the plot. It is washed and washed again. The heart of the lettuce is removed and the leaves fall about in a sink full of water. One boy picks out the older leaves and they will go in the compost bin. Lettuce in soup? and a scrunched up expression.
After sweating down the spring onions and finely diced garlic in our own home pressed olive oil the lettuce and peas are added and allowed to wilt down. Finally the veggie stock is poured in. Once it has simmered for fifteen minutes we need to blend it and then pass it through sieves to strain it and get it truly silken. It is a long, slow process made sweet and meditative by conversation and the warmth of being involved in a shared task. But eleven-year-old boys are not meditative for long. They wander off to something that looks more entertaining – like the job of popping from their pods the broad beans. They need to be herded back to their bench. Always there seems a scarcity of help when there is washing up to be done. Where is my Chef de plonge? But reeled in they can clean as good as the rest of us. The benches need to be clean! I need my lasso.
On the day of the mise en place there is not the usual sit down and eat for the kids at the end of the cooking session. Imagine not eating after all that work. They have a dejected look. Welcome to our world. That is how mothers feel often, I think. All that work and it is eaten by someone else. So they make the most of their tasting opportunities. Just checking the seasoning one more time! Another spoonful of peas goes missing from the pot. If they were chipmunks they would be filling their cheeks for the winter.
On the day of the Big Lunch many volunteers have come to help, along with a handful of children from Grade Six. These kids will be the waiters and the representatives of the school. You can see their chests puff up a little as they are told this. As they are given their instructions from Lee, just as the head chef would give her front of house staff the run down of the menu, they are all ears. Pony tails are retied. Hair clips repositioned. Dirty aprons are swapped for clean ones. Girls adjust theirs to be just the right (cool) length.
The art room has been transformed into an Italian cantina with red and white checked table cloths, jugs of water with added sprigs of fresh mint and recycled Italian tomato cans hold the serviettes and cutlery. It looks a treat. There is even a guitarist.
It is an impressive menu – dips three ways with crostini, pea and lettuce soup served in a shot glass, mountains of homemade tagliatelli with zucchini and thyme sauce, a green salad with pumpkin seeds and ending on sweet strawberry tarts with vanilla whipped cream. All served and made by children around the age of eleven. The guests were struck by the well-mannered children, the spanking stainless steel kitchen, the fact that such a small school had a hive of volunteers and, that in the space of six months, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden experience at East Fremantle Primary has grown into a beloved and integral part of the school experience.