Teens exposed to Chicago's culinary treasures

January 13, 2012 10:07:00 AM PST
Economic and geographic isolation is a common reality for many teenagers in Chicago, especially for kids on the South and West Sides. But ABC7's Hungry Hound profiles a new program in one Englewood High School hoping to expand their horizons, many times through food.

Currently in the pilot stage, the EMBARC program is already gaining traction within its community. Attendance is up and the teenagers are getting exposed to some of Chicago's culinary and cultural treasures, thanks to the generosity of others.

A group of teenagers from Harper High School had lunch in one of Chicago's finest restaurants, and while food is part of the experience, the real goal is to expand their horizons. They're part of a pilot program called EMBARC, which stands for empowering minds, building achievement and reconnecting communities. It was started by a teacher at Harper High who realized there had to be something more than just textbooks.

"The classroom alone is not going to be enough to teach our young kids, especially given the fact that so many of them are isolated, economically and socially," said Imran Khan, the founder of EMBARC. "If you're going to advance their achievement, you need to do it outside of the classroom. They need to go out in the real world and experience things."

Khan arranges outings for the kids, such as dining at MK, a restaurant in a part of the city these kids have never visited.

"We live in Englewood, so it's to bring you outside of Englewood and show you different things, other things you can do in Chicago," said Terrance Vaughn, a junior at Harper High School.

"There are roughly 14 people back here working as cooks."

MK's chef, Erick Williams, gives the kids a tour of the kitchen, as well as the basement, where his staff preps for dinner.

"The kids are able to ask questions," said Khan. "They try new foods, they learn about how the chef got where they are, how the restaurant works, every part of it.

"Some of these kids are living in food deserts, so they don't get a chance to see fresh produce, let alone expand themselves to the point where they're ever in a restaurant such as this one," said Williams.

Williams serves them three courses, beginning with a pumpkin soup containing a garnish of apples, pumpkin seeds and toasted coconut.

"The pumpkin soup that we're going to do, the flavor profile is not that unfamiliar to African Americans because we ate sweet potato pie for a long time," he said.

"Pumpkin soup was good. It had a creamy taste to it, i really liked it," said Vaughn.

Keeping things familiar, but also new, Williams roasts chicken, serving it over a bed of sautéed organic carrots and fingerling potatoes. The kids ask tons of questions, and clearly appreciate the fact that Williams himself is a product of Lawndale on the city's West Side. The program is in its infancy, but these kids seem to truly relish their excursions outside of their neighborhood.

"It's amazing," said Jalonda Thompson, a sophomore at Harper High. "It's a new experience for me. I was in a leadership program last year, but this is actually my first year being in EMBARC.

"I'm learning about new foods. The pumpkin soup, it was something new. It was kind of sweet and tasty, but it was something I've never tried before."

The program has already been talking with the head of the C.P.S. to expand EMBARC to other schools. They're always looking for good field trips to not only restaurants and plays, but companies as well.